The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism held an event Thursday afternoon called “Professional Sports and the LGBT Experience” as part of its weeklong awareness conference on sports and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender experience.
The event’s panel of speakers included Billy Bean, former MLB center fielder; Wade Davis, former NFL player and executive director of the “You Can Play Project” focusing on the LGBT youth and sports; Lauren Lappin, 2008 Olympic softball player and Esera Tuaolo, former NFL defensive tackle. All shared stories of their experiences being gay in a professional sports environment in a discussion moderated by Kate Fagan of ESPN.
“We are hosting this program to bring together scholars, athletes and media to discuss the gay sports intersection,” said Adam Rogers, the conference’s co-director and coordinator. “We hope to achieve a greater understanding of how to overcome barriers to athletes and coaches being able to live openly and honestly about their sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Panelists shared personal stories of how they came out and how it affected their lives and the sports world in general. Since the panelists differed in age, their experiences varied accordingly.
“My experience in the NFL back then was horrible,” Tuaolo, one of the older athletes, said. “I would hear homophobic statements from my teammates all the time in the locker room, which just pushed me further and further into the closet. Now, though, we are making progress and there is more support now, at least more than there was back when I was an athlete.”
Both Bean and Davis are involved in foundations that work to combat bullying. They said they now rely on LGBT youth to pave the way for athletes at different levels of competition.
“Shifting consciousness requires us to target the youth,” Davis said.
Some pointed out the role the media plays in sports and LGBT experiences.
“We have a media that really doesn’t want to address these issues,” said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com and an expert in the field of sexuality and sports. “They shove the issues under the rug to avoid conflict.”
Another issue presented was stereotypes around homosexuality and particular sports.
“Throughout my softball career, the protocol of appearance was hugely important. People would say, ‘Make sure you wear a ribbon in your hair so that people don’t think you’re gay,’ and that goes to show that it’s important to get rid of this stereotype,” said Lappin, the only woman on the panel.
The panelists also discussed a few of the main reasons why athletes choose to stay in the closet.
“Society has created these ideas of masculinity that make it impossible for gay people to play sports,” Wade said. “However, if we redefine these ideas of masculinity, it would be easier for society to accept that you can be gay and still be a man.”
Bean spoke about different barriers regarding coming out, explaining that job security often is a big factor in athletes’ decisions.
“Athletes have this fear that if you take on the reality of telling the truth about yourself, you will not get the same opportunities as others,” Bean said. “The sports world is so competitive that you don’t want to give anyone a reason, such as being gay or lesbian, to not pick you to be on a team.”
Rogers, a project specialist at the Norman Lear Center, also spoke about the culture for gay athletes specifically at USC.
“The collegiate panel showed that many strides have been made in making USC Athletics an inclusive space,” Rogers said. “The leadership of Athletic Director Pat Haden has ensured that LGBT athletes have a safe and welcome place in the USC athletic culture.”
Many students found the panel members’ openness to be meaningful.
“I like how they spoke about the importance of professional athletes coming out because of its inspiration and its ability to save thousands of lives, especially the LGBT youth,” said Alex Yessayan, a sophomore majoring in policy, planning and development.
Others said the panel helped them better understand the plight of gay athletes.
“I have lots of friends from high school who are gay athletes,” Sarah Krenik, an undecided sophomore, said. “I think this panel has opened my eyes further as to what my friends might have experienced.”
This post has been updated from the original report to reflect the correction of the spelling of Billy Bean’s name. He is not associated with Billy Beane, the subject of Moneyball. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.