The last six months has proved pivotal for the anti-homophobia movement in sport. For many, the Sochi protests put the subject centre stage in the media but possibly the biggest change has been the number of athletes declaring their sexual orientation whilst still competing. With sports agents and sports marketing agencies supporting their clients with these decisions, as opposed to encouraging them to keep quiet, the landscape is changing, and not a moment too soon.
Roy Simmons, the former New York Giants and Washington Redskins offensive lineman, must be a classic example of an elite sportsman experiencing the pain of having to live up to the heterosexual athlete image in line with traditional sport. Having recently died of pneumonia, he came out on his retirement and, at the time, was only the second NFL player to do so. The 57-year-old hid his sexuality for the entirety of his career, which is widely regarded to have led to a troubled life both on and off the pitch.
Speaking to the New York Daily News in 2006, Simmons said that in the current climate there was nothing worse than being gay in the NFL, a view recently echoed by NFL broadcaster Dale Hansen in his support of Michael Sam. Simmons’ former Giants teammate, Harry Carson, said that the dressing room would have accepted a gay player and whilst Sam’s college teammates have been reported as being supportive of him, only time will tell if this attitude tracks through to professional levels of the game.
Another player to come out recently was Jason Collins of the Brooklyn Nets. He was the first openly gay basketball player to take to the field. The 35-year-old who has had a long career in the NBA, said he hoped the decision would encourage an environment that is welcoming for gay athletes.
Across the pond and in the UK milestones are being marked too. Football is a sport with a macho façade and has lagged behind the progress of society in general. Thomas Hitzlsperger, who again came out on retirement in January 2014, became the first openly gay player to have played in the Premier League. This marked a significant step in the history of the most-watched sport in the world and gave the GLBT movement a real boost.
Hitzlsperger’s decision has shone a spotlight on football, inadvertently raising the profile of England Football Ladies’ captain, Casey Stoney. Stoney is out and having quietly won 116 caps for her country, recent events have now made her the most high-profile gay footballer in England. It is hoped that this will set an example for the thousands of young, gay women – and ideally gay men – to follow her into sport.
The bodies that govern sport are now being openly reminded about how their decisions affect all athletes. The most recent example of this is tennis great, Billy Jean King, asking the IOC to take equal rights into its consideration when awarding host nations. Also speaking out is John Amaechi, the first NBA player ever to come out, who has called on competing athletes to take a stand against discrimination, believing silence is complicity.
Amaechi and Roy Simmons share much in common, including a belief that sport is still not safe ground for gay athletes. However by breaking through the barriers into active sportsmen, one of the toughest frontiers has been crossed. Though Roy Simmons has passed on, the legacy which he and other brave, out athletes have created, continues to grow.
ENS is a sports public relations agency based in London. With a catalogue of world class clients across a multitude of sports, they specialize in sports PR, online public relations and crisis management.