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Opening the Sports Closet

Media Coverage of the Self-Outings of


Jason Collins and Brittney Griner
LOR I DANN AND TR ACY EVER BACH

This textual-discourse analysis examines coverage of the coming-out revelations of


two American professional athletes in major sports media. When Brittney Griner of
the wnba and Jason Collins of the nba made their announcements within two weeks
of each other in April 2013, sports media embraced both athletes by praising their
courage and calling for tolerance. However, sports media treated Collinss revelation
as big news and Griners as routine. The sports world continues to cling to the idea
that masculinity and heterosexuality are linked, in line with the concept of masculine
hegemony. Because Griner defies societal constructions of femininity, she adheres to
the stereotypical view that aggressive female athletes are masculine. The media discourse reflected these conceptual frameworks. Yet the positive media coverage in support of these gay athletes demonstrates that these constructions may be in flux.
Keywords: sports media, gay athletes, Brittney Griner, Jason Collins, masculine
hegemony

uring a two-week span in April 2013, two American basketball players publicly came out of the closet. One, Brittney Griner, 22, who
was ending her college career at Baylor University and joining the
wnba, followed several other female athletes who already had acknowledged their sexual orientation (Griffi n, 1998). The other, veteran nba player Jason Collins, 34, became the fi rst male athlete in a top four U.S. team
sport to reveal he was gay while still playing professionally. Griner made
her comments during an interview with si.com, while Collins revealed his
sexual orientation in a cover story he wrote for Sports Illustrated magazine.
This study examines media coverage of the two athletes coming-out
announcements in major U.S. sports media. It employs qualitative examination, using textual discourse analysis, of coverage in Sports Illustrated,
si.com, espn.com, Yahoo! Sports, BleacherReport.com, and Deadspin.com.
The theoretical basis is masculine hegemony, which takes into account
that heterosexual males dominate the sports industry, whereas female ath-

letes and the lgbtq community are symbolically annihilated in sports media. Symbolic annihilation, as described by Tuchman (1978) posits that certain groups are absent from mass media and therefore are marginalized or
trivialized in society. In a 2013 update to the seminal 1978 book Hearth and
Home, Tuchman noted that women continue to be marginalized in media,
although in different ways than decades ago, including being misrepresented and excluded from specific ideologies or niches (Tuchman, 2013).
The confluence of Griners and Collinss public acknowledgements
presents a research opportunity, considering the history of gays and lesbians in sport. Women athletes have long been stereotyped as lesbians,
whereas male athletes are portrayed as the pinnacle of heterosexual masculinity (Anderson, 2005; Messner, 1992; Pronger, 1990). Research shows
that homophobia has long been prevalent in the sports world (Messner,
1992), and the presence of openly gay male athletes in the locker room
presents a threat to masculine hegemony in sports (Anderson, 2002).
Masculine Hegemony
In her 1994 book, Women, Media and Sport: Challenging Gender Values, Pamela Creedon maintained that sport serves as a metaphor for values in
American culture (p. 5). These values dictate that male sports reign supreme and that women play supporting roles. The social construction of
gender also prescribes certain assumptions about what it means to be male
and female, particularly in sports. Male athletes are portrayed as the heterosexual heroes of the playing field and court. Female athletes are considered lesser or secondary and receive significantly less media coverage than
male athletes (Jones, 2006; Lee & Choi, 2003; Messner, Cooky, Hextrum,
& Nyad, 2010; Tuggle, 1997). This masculine hegemony rules the sports
world and perpetuates a number of assumptions that are contradicted
by reality. Masculinity is a social construction that can differ according
to the gender relations in a particular social setting, wrote Connell and
Messerschmidt (2005) in an article on rethinking the concept of masculine hegemony (pp. 836 837). Sports are a key forum for linking masculinity and heterosexuality, leaving homosexual male athletes outside socially
constructed acceptance (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Kian, Vincent,
& Mondello, 2008).
Female athletes struggle with constructed notions of masculinity and
femininity. Kane and Greendorfer (1994) pointed out that sport emphasizes mens physical and social power over women. Women who are physically strong and powerful defy a feminine stereotype and are seen as de170

Journal of Sports Media, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 2016

viating from the norm. They often are assumed to be lesbians unless they
go out of their way to represent themselves as femininefor example, female athletes who compete in so-called feminine sports like gymnastics
and figure skating, who pose in swimsuits for mens magazines, or who
emphasize their relationships with men (Cunningham, Fink, & Kenix,
2008; Dutot, 2001).
Antunovic and Hardin (2013) noted that today, instead of symbolically
annihilating women athletes, sports media represent them through ambivalence. Women appear in media as athletes, but coverage focuses on
their personal backgrounds rather than athletic accomplishments and on
aesthetic and sexual appeal rather than their skill and mental powers (p.
74). Despite the incredible growth of womens sports participation since
the 1970s, sports and sports media remain overwhelmingly male dominated. In 2012, 90% of sports editors and 88% of sports reporters were men
(Lapchick et al., 2013). Not surprisingly, sports media have traditionally reinforced masculine hegemony and maintained the assumption that
straight male athletes are the norm of professional team sports. However, Kian and Anderson (2009) suggested that in recent years, sportswriters
have lobbied for more tolerance and acceptance of gay male athletes.
This study examines the collision of reality and stereotypes perpetuated by masculine hegemony during the time period in 2013 when Collins
and Griner publicly acknowledged their sexuality.
The overall research question is, How did major U.S. sports media cover the coming-out announcements of Brittney Griner and Jason Collins?
The Idealized Image of the Male Athlete
Former Major League Baseball player Billy Bean still remembers the first
time he heard the F word on an athletic field. He was in the fourth grade,
playing quarterback for his youth football team, when his coach began
yelling at a teammate who had missed a tackle: Dont run like a faggot,
boy! Bean was unsure exactly what the word actually meant, but its purpose was clear. It equaled weakness and timidity, everything a budding,
insecure jock wanted to avoid, he wrote in his autobiography (Bean &
Bull, 2003, p. 107). The coach used other slurs on a regular basisqueer,
girl, pussy, sissy all of which sent the same message: sports are for
real men, and physical or emotional weakness will not be tolerated. Bean
wrote that male athletes are taught from an early age that they have to
constantly prove their manhood by bulking up, playing through injuries,
and infl icting pain on others. The sexual-slur strategy works because playDann & Everbach: Opening the Sports Closet

171

ers respond to it by almost reflexively raising their intensity level out of


a fear of being labeled feminine (Bean & Bull, 2003, p. 108).
This antigay attitude taught in childhood is commonplace in college
and professional locker rooms and playing fields (Anderson, 2005). In
2013, Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice was fi red after being videotaped
shouting homophobic slurs, throwing basketballs at his players, and shoving them while questioning their manhood during practice (Van Natta,
2013). Former National Football League running back David Kopay wrote
in his autobiography that many of the skirmishes during nfl games are
the result of players calling each other fag (Kopay & Young, 2001, p. vii).
Yet some players try to pretend as if homosexuality doesnt exist such
as nfl cornerback Chris Culliver, who said of his team, the San Francisco
49ers, prior to the 2013 Super Bowl, No, we dont got no gay people on the
team. They gotta get up out of here if they do (Rogers, 2013, para. 3).
Messner (1996) suggested that many young gay males, such as Kopay
and Bean, pursue sports as a way of verifying their masculinity. The practice of engaging in homophobic name-calling is a way of constructing hegemonic masculinity, regardless of whether the target is gay or not. The
aggressors in these events may actually identify as gay or experience homoerotic feelings. However, by staying closeted and allowing the homophobic messages to continue, they are contributing to the construction of culturally dominant conceptions of masculinity (Messner, 1992,
p. 518). Former Green Bay Packers nose tackle Esera Tuaolo, who came
out as gay after retiring from the nfl, wrote that he felt confl icted about
his sexuality because of his athletic success and the mixed messages he received from his coaches, teammates, and the media: If Im a football player, I reasoned, I cant be gay (Tuaolo & Rosengren, 2006, p. 25).
Because no active male athletes in major professional team sports had
come out prior to Collins, this stereotype persists. Yet some insiders insist Collins isnt alone. Zeke Thomas, the gay son of nba legend Isaiah
Thomas, said his father told him following Collinss announcement that
this isnt something uncommon. The 12-time all-star said he competed
with and against gay players throughout his career (Musto, 2013, para. 3).
Charles Barkley, who played in the nba from 1984 2000, said he competed
alongside three gay players during his career and believes everybody has
played with a gay teammate (Weinrich, 2013, para. 3).
Misogyny is a significant issue in many locker rooms, and it is closely
tied to homophobia, wrote Curry (1991). Both are used to facilitate a fraternal bond and to reinforce mens dominance over women. Women are
talked about as objects rather than people, and there is often an aggres172

Journal of Sports Media, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 2016

sive nature that normalizes rape, sometimes resulting in the promotion


of a rape culture in locker rooms. John Amaechi, Billy Bean, David Kopay,
Roy Simmons, and Esera Tuaolo all athletes who came out after they
stopped playing professional sports experienced this locker room bravado from their teammates, many of whom were married, bragged about
their sexual conquests, and consistently degraded and objectified women
(Amaechi & Bull, 2007; Bean & Bull, 2003; Kopay & Young, 2001; Simmons
& Hester, 2006; Tuaolo & Rosengren, 2006). Gay players often feel pressured into joining the chatter and even engaging in heterosexual relationships to hide their secrets (Curry, 1991). When it was discovered in 2013
that the longtime, long-distance girlfriend of University of Notre Dame
linebacker Manti Teo never existed and that a male acquaintance had orchestrated the hoax, questions arose about Teos sexuality. Teo, who said
he was far from gay after the initial reports of the hoax, denied being
asked about his sexuality at the nfl Scouting Combine and was eventually selected in the second round. However, other prospects said they were
asked, Do you like girls? (Walder, 2013, para. 4).
Despite these factors, most professional athletes appear to support
gay teammates. In 2006 Sports Illustrated conducted a poll of athletes in
the four major sports and found that 57% of nfl players would welcome
an openly gay teammate (Buzinski, 2011). espn conducted another nfl
poll in 2014 after Michael Sam, a defensive end with the University of
Missouri and the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year,
announced he was gay. That poll found that 86.3% of nfl players said a
teammates sexuality was not important (Mascaro, 2014). Several current
nfl players, including Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo,
have announced their support for gay marriage in recent years (Schultz, 2013). The changing climate prompted Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffi n III to encourage gay players to stop hiding their sexuality: If theyre looking for a window to just come out, I mean, now is
the window (Vaughan, 2013, para. 4).
Stereotyping Sports Women
Men have traditionally used sports as a way to prove their masculinity
through their strength, speed, and agility. Women, on the other hand,
have traditionally been valued in Western society for their femininity and
therefore relegated to domestic responsibilities. For this reason, Pronger
(1990) theorized, sport is a central component to maintaining male hegemony in society. Sports were discouraged for women in the past because it
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was believed that such exertion could cause a masculinizing effect that
would jeopardize their apparent primary responsibilitymotherhood.
Women were not permitted to compete in the Olympic Games until 1928,
in part because of the fear that they would become more manly in physical
appearance, mannerisms, and dress (Cahn, 1993).
When Babe Didrikson entered the sports realm, she stirred fear and
loathing among many of her male competitors because of her advanced
athletic skills and mannish appearance. After losing a golf match to
Didrikson in 1932, sportswriter Paul Gallico called her a Muscle Moll,
a reference to her mannishness (Cayleff, 1995, p. 86). Didrikson was also
criticized for her unflattering dress, short-cropped hair, and muscular physique, all of which contributed to rumors of lesbianism. Finally, she gave
in to the pressure and began wearing dresses, girdles, and lipstick.
Cahn (1993) suggested that one reason for heterosexual males fear of
the mannish lesbian athlete is the implication of heterosexual failure
due to the absence of heterosexual interest. After World War II, there
was a heightened awareness of homosexuality. Women who participated in physical education and played sports were generally considered unattractive and unnatural, and their sexuality was instantly questioned
(Cahn, 1993). This suspicion and general disdain of athletic-oriented women continued in the 1960s and 1970s, even as the womens movement picked
up steam. Gilder (1973) proposed that sports were possibly the single most
important male rite in modern society. He said the inclusion of women
degraded athletic performance from an ideal of beauty and truth to a
disgusting perversion (Gilder, 1973, pp. 216 218). This marginalization of
female athletes as the other carried over to public sentiment about possible lesbianism in womens professional sports.
In 1981, following tennis champion Billie Jean Kings public outing,
there was fear in the womens sports world that its greatest champion
the woman who defeated Bobby Riggs in the hyped Battle of the Sexes
might actually negate all the gains female athletes had recently made by
confi rming the long-held theory that womens sports were dominated by
lesbians. In their intertextual analysis of the media reports at the time, Birrell and McDonald (2012) found that some opinion writers expressed no
surprise about Kings revelation, stating that lesbianism in sports is neither rampant nor a scandal (p. 350). Birrell and McDonald asserted that
sweeping lesbianism under the rug because of privacy is a political strategy with deep implications in the fight for public acceptance of gays and
lesbians (p. 353).
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Another media strategy that helps maintain the male power hierarchy
is the symbolic annihilation of female athletes, whether through their absence, trivialization, or sexualization in the media. Shugart (2003) found
through textual analysis that the media promotes masculine hegemony
by shunning the image of the mannish female athlete and avoiding the
stigma of lesbianism. Duncan (1990) noted that because sport functions as
one of the last masculine strongholds, portraying women as strong and
powerful is seen as a threat. Tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Chris
Evert were portrayed by the media as the antitheses of one another during
their rivalry. Navratilova was the emotional, hard-charging, aggressive,
lesbian outsider; and Evert was the calm, sweet, All-American baseliner.
Navratilova believed that the media exaggerated the differences between
the players, even though they both wore the same size skirt and were
friends off the court for many years (Shapiro, 1999).
More recently, an analysis of media coverage of the 1999 U.S. womens
soccer team showed a subtle sexualization of the athletes achieved by focusing on the players families and their relationships with men rather
than their own athletic accomplishments (Shugart, 2003, p. 15). By doing
this, media are able to implicitly or covertly assure the audience that female athletes are heterosexual (Knight & Giuliano, 2003, p. 273). Often
the athletes themselves and the leagues they play in are complicit with
this heterosexual agenda as well as the sexualization of athletes for the
pleasure of men, because they are desperate to gain media coverage and
the respect of the male audience (Carty, 2005). The reinforcement of these
messages by the media tends to distort reality for sports viewers. Because
sports commentary is not limited to channels like espn and can be seen in
other programming, viewers are continually absorbing messages that do
not accurately portray female athletes and female sports (Tanner, 2011, p.
18). As a result, audiences begin to believe stereotypes and see female athletes in a sexual rather than an athletic light.
Lesbian Fear Factor
Despite these stereotypes, Galst (1998) found that relatively few female college athletes and coaches are openly gay. Most socialize only with a small
group of trusted friends, fearful they will hurt their program or lose their
jobs or scholarships. Griner acknowledged that lesbian players at Baylor
University were discouraged from talking about their sexuality because it
could affect recruiting. However, playing it straight is not always easy, acDann & Everbach: Opening the Sports Closet

175

cording to Galst, who said, An aggressive woman with a physically powerful body goes against the norm of female looks and behavior. So women
who look and act this way or play sports this way are too much like
men; theyre abnormal (pp. 74 75).
Although Navratilova lost endorsements after coming out during the
prime of her career, she inspired generations of gay athletes after her, including Jason Collins, who told ABC News that she was a role model who
helped him embrace his sexuality (Stephanopoulus, 2013). Not long after
Navratilova retired from singles play, four-time Olympic gold medalist
Greg Louganis wrote about his experience as a gay diver with aids in his
1995 book Breaking the Surface. Muffi n Spencer-Devlin became the fi rst lpga
golfer to come out a year later (Zeigler, 2011). A number of athletes came
out after the turn of the 21st century, including three wnba players: Sue
Wicks in 2000, Michele Van Gorp in 2004, and the leagues three-time mvp,
Sheryl Swoopes, in 2005.
Swoopess announcement was particularly noteworthy because she
was the face of the league and the fi rst female athlete with her own shoe,
the Air Swoopes by Nike. She was also the fi rst major professional Black
athlete to make a public announcement while still playing. wnba players
Michele Van Gorp of the Minnesota Lynx and Sue Wicks of the New York
Liberty were the only active professional female athletes in a team sport
who had previously come out and both had since retired (Granderson,
2005), yet Mark Morford (2005) wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that
Swoopess announcement wasnt much of a secret anyway (para. 6). espns Pat Forde added that it would take considerably more courage for a
man to come out as gay (Hollar, 2006, para. 3).
Gay Men in Professional Sports
Before Collins no U.S. male athlete in the top four professional sports
had come out while still active in his sport, although several confi rmed
they were gay after retiring. Kopay, who stayed in the closet while playing running back for five different franchises during his 10-year nfl career, came out in a 1975 article written by Lynn Rossellini in the Washington Star (Kopay & Young, 2001). Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Los
Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics from 19761979, was the fi rst
openly gay active player in Major League Baseball, but discussions about
his sexuality never left the clubhouse. When the Dodgers top executives
realized Burke was gay, they offered him $75,000 to tone things down and
marry a woman, but he refused (Barra, 2013). Many believe that Burke was
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eventually blackballed out of the league because of his sexuality. When


he was traded to Oakland in 1978, manager Billy Martin introduced Burke
to his new teammates by saying, This is Glenn Burke, and hes a faggot
(McEvers, 2013). After being released by the As, Burke decided to come out
publicly on the Today show in 1982. He was diagnosed with aids in 1994 and
died a year later (Barra, 2013).
The Dodgers Billy Bean kept his sexuality a secret while he played.
Bean was so closeted that when his fi rst male partner died from complications of hiv, he went to the ballpark instead of his funeral because he did
not know how to explain their relationship. Bean fi nally came out in 1999,
four years after leaving baseball (Bean & Bull, 2003).
Two former nfl players stepped forward to talk about their secret lives
in 1992 and 2002, and both were hulking linemen. Roy Simmons, who
played offensive guard for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins
from 19791983, said he learned quickly that almost anything goes in the
nfl except being gay. He wrote in his autobiography, You can be a wifebeater, you can do drugs, get piss-ass drunk and wreck your car, sleep
with as many groupies as you want behind your wifes back, and destroy
private property whenever you went on a rampage (Simmons & Hester,
2006, p. 126). Being gay, though, was the unpardonable sin. Esera Tuaolos nine-year career as a nose tackle for Green Bay, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Atlanta, and Carolina was marked by constant fear (Tuaolo & Rosengren, 2006). Every time he made a tackle or sang the national anthem, he
worried he might be recognized by someone who knew he was gay. Vulgar homophobic slurs peppered the locker room on a regular basis, and
Tuaolo said he struggled to survive the combative, macho world dominated by a culture that despised who I really am (p. 3).
At 6-foot-10, nba center John Amaechi never had to worry about anyone
accusing him of being gay when he was growing up. Eventually, though,
his teammates began to question why he never talked about women (Amaechi & Bull, 2007). When Amaechi came out two years after leaving the
league, former nba star Tim Hardaway said he would not be able to accept
a gay teammate. I dont like gay people, and I dont like to be around gay
people, he said. I am homophobic. (Retired nba Star, 2007, para. 2).
Amaechi was never a standout pro player, but he received significant
media attention after becoming the fi rst former nba player to come out. In
a textual analysis of the media coverage, Kian and Anderson (2009) found
that most writers called for acceptance of gay athletes and denounced
Hardaways homophobic rant. Yet one of the overriding narratives was
that the locker room is no place for gay men (p. 806).
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Method
To examine sports-media coverage at the time Griner and Collins came
out publicly, we conducted a textual analysis of leading sports media
for one month surrounding the two announcements. We chose a textual analysis because it allows an inductive examination of media content
to gain knowledge of its meaning (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2010). With this
qualitative inquiry, researchers are able to identify themes from the material examined. This inductive process helps identify the cultural discourse surrounding a topic and allows researchers to investigate how the
dominant discourse is produced, how it is disseminated, what it excludes,
how some knowledge becomes subjugated, and so forth (Hesse-Biber &
Leavy, 2010, p. 238).
The sports-media organizations we chose were Sports Illustrated magazine and its website, si.com; espn.com; Yahoo! Sports; BleacherReport.
com; and Deadspin.com. Sports Illustrated and si.com represent the most
popular general sports magazine in the nation as well as the forum in
which Collins chose to write the article revealing he is gay (15 Most Popular, 2013; Media, Reader Survey, 2012). The most read sports website
is espn.com, with 62.5 million unique visitors monthly. Yahoo! Sports is
the leading nonnetwork sports website with 60.2 million unique visitors
monthly. BleacherReport.com was chosen because it is a popular blog that
bills itself as entertaining sports news, which 13 million unique visitors
seek out each month. Deadspin.com is another well-known sports blog,
advertising its sports news as without access, favor or discretion and
attracting about 750,000 unique users monthly. The aim was to examine
what type of news about Collins and Griner was available to readers and
viewers during the month after their announcements.
To obtain Sports Illustrated and si.com articles, we searched the ProQuest
database for Sports Illustrated magazine with the term Jason Collins between April 17, 2013, and May 17, 2013. The main articles pertaining to Collinss revelation were published in the May 6, 2013, issue and posted online
on April 29, 2013. We repeated the database search with Brittney Griner
and found no articles in the magazine pertaining to her coming out. However, since Griner had acknowledged being gay in an interview with si.com
that was published April 17, we searched si.com for that interview.
We located content that ran on espn.com, Yahoo! Sports, BleacherReport.com, and Deadspin.com through a Google Advanced Search. Griner
made her revelation on April 17, 2013, whereas Collinss cover story was
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published online on April 29, 2013, and in the magazine dated May 6, 2013.
Therefore, we searched articles that ran between April 17, 2013, and May
17, 2013. We conducted Google Advanced Searches for Collinss name and
espn.go.com (the url for espns website), sports.yahoo.com (Yahoo! Sports
url), BleacherReport.com, and Deadspin.com between the dates April 17,
2013, and May 17, 2013. We then repeated the searches with Griners name
and the same terms.
The searches yielded 28 text articles, 20 about Collins and 8 about Griner. The searches also turned up an espn video featuring an on-air discussion between lz Granderson, an openly gay sportswriter for ESPN The
Magazine, and Chris Broussard, an espn sports analyst. This video also was
examined as part of the analysis. Only original content from the sportsmedia organizations was included; for example, stories from the Associated Press were excluded.
One researcher read all the articles and watched the video closely, seeking out overall themes in the discourse. Then she read them again, identifying categories within the themes. The researcher used the guidelines
of textual analysis within cultural studies outlined by Kellner (2011), combining formalist analysis with critique of how cultural meanings convey
specific ideologies of gender, race, class, sexuality, nation, and other ideological dimensions (p. 12). In this case, the researcher was concerned primarily with gender and sexuality portrayals in sports media. She took into
account race as well, since both athletes are Black. The themes are outlined below.
Results
Media Framing of Collins
In his Sports Illustrated cover story, which began, Im a 34-year-old nba
center. Im black. And Im gay, Collins expressed his desire to be genuine
and authentic and truthful and to not hide anymore (Collins, 2013, para.
1). He acknowledged that he wore the number 98 as a tribute to Matthew
Shepard, a Wyoming teen who in 1998 was tortured and killed for being
gay. Collins noted improved public acceptance of homosexuality by 2013.
His quote on the cover of the magazine read, Pro basketball is a family.
And pretty much every family I know has a brother, sister or cousin whos
gay. In the brotherhood of the nba, I just happen to be the one whos out
(Collins, 2013).
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Controversy
The most controversial media coverage of Collinss coming out was not
his article in Sports Illustrated. Instead, it was an espn Outside the Lines onair debate about religion and homosexuality between lz Granderson and
Chris Broussard. Both commentators are Black, and Granderson noted
in the broadcast that the Black community has been hesitant to accept
lgbt people. Broussard then emphasized that he is Christian and said, I
dont agree with homosexuality; I think its a sin. Broussard added that
being gay is an open rebellion to God. Granderson countered by saying he also is Christian and said, I dont think ones sexual orientation
is particular to one branch of the Bible or another (otl, 2013). Both
Deadspin.com and Yahoo! Sports ran commentary that criticized Broussard. Deadspin.com questioned why Broussards comments were necessary or even relevant at this hour and added, All of this feels like
its from the 90s (Koblin, 2013, para. 4). Yahoo! Sports also condemned
Broussards remarks, calling them dismissive and questioning whether
the espn show was the appropriate venue for Broussard to air his opinion
on homosexuality (Dwyer, 2013).
Support and Praise
The overwhelming media reaction to Collinss story was supportive and
sympathetic. In fact, other professional athletes who disapproved of him
on TwitterMiami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace, Detroit Lions
cornerback Alphonso Smith, and former New York Knicks player Larry Johnsonwere dismissed or criticized in media coverage. A Yahoo!
Sports story showed that nba players Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, as well
as other well-known professional athletes, tweeted their support, as did
nba commissioner David Stern and fi rst lady Michelle Obama. Former
president Bill Clinton issued a statement praising Collins and saying he
had known him since he was a Stanford University classmate of Chelsea
Clintons (Busbee, 2013b). Chelsea Clinton also tweeted her support. On
Deadspin.com, writer Emma Carmichael (2013) noted, This is a feel-good
moment, people. We live in a historical moment in which a gay professional basketball player is comfortable coming out (para. 7). In an espn.
com column, Kevin Arnovitz (2013) praised Collins for being honest and
true to himself: Sports was one of the last places in American public life
where that was impossible, but Collins has righted that (para. 10). A Yahoo! Sports article noted that the tone toward gay male players has become more positive over the past decade (Mandell, 2013).
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A week after Collinss story ran, Sports Illustrated revealed the results of
a fan poll in which 53% of respondents said Collinss announcement was
a positive step for pro sports and 78% said their opinion of an athlete
would not change if he or she came out as gay (Wahl, Bechtel, & Beech,
2013). However, Collins knew he would face dissenters. He wrote, As far
as the reaction of the fans, I dont mind if they heckle me. Ive been booed
before (Collins, 2013, para. 30).
He Is Washed Up
A third theme in the Collins coverage addressed his viability as a player.
He was a free agent when he made his announcement, and some writers
insinuated he had made the decision to come out because his career was
waning. A post on True Hoop, espn.coms blog, quoted an anonymous nba
Western Conference executive who said, The reality is that hes been an
end-of-the-roster kind of player for the past couple of years (Stein, 2013,
para. 4). Sources who speculated Collins would not be signed for the 2013
2014 season cited his age and skills as factors, not his sexuality.
BleacherReport.com reported that Collins just concluded his 12th nba
season with a 10.1-minute average in 38 games, in which he tallied just 1.1
points and 1.6 rebounds per game, and noted that he hasnt been a consistent on-court presence in years (Spencer, 2013, para. 6). On BleacherReport.com, guest columnist Aaron McQuade, director of news and field
media for glaad, a media voice for lgbtq people, wrote that some teams
may be reluctant to sign an openly gay player because of media attention
and because it means taking a stance. McQuade also pointed out that
this applies only to mens sports, because womens sports broke the barrier long ago.
Fans of womens sports are used to seeing some of their champions
be gay women. But its certainly not true that theres no anti-gay sentiment in womens sports. Talk to any female athlete and she will tell
you that homophobia is quite prevalent, especially at the college level,
where its often used as a recruiting tool against certain schools. (McQuade, 2013, para. 10)
In early 2014 Collins signed a contract to play with the Brooklyn Nets.
He played for the rest of the season with the Nets, and his Number 98
jersey was in high demand (Jason Collins Remains, 2014). Collins announced his retirement in November 2014 (Collins, 2014).
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Media Framing of Griner


Griner acknowledged her sexuality publicly in an interview with si.coms
Maggie Gray, who commented, In female sports, in the wnba, players
have already come out, and its really accepted (Griner, Delle Donna,
Diggins, 2013, para. 1). Griner then responded that she had been hiding
her sexuality during college. Later in 2014, as a center for the wnbas Phoenix Mercury, she became engaged to her girlfriend, Glory Johnson, a forward for the Tulsa Shock.
No Big Surprise
Much of the media coverage in the month following Griners acknowledgement treated it as a minor news event. Gray, the si.com interviewer,
regarded the topic of lesbians in sport as a given. Chicago Sky forward
Elena Delle Donna noted in the same interview, In our sport, were
fi ne with it. Were all friends, and I want everybody to be who they are.
You shouldnt have to lie, thats not fair. Hopefully the men can one day
adopt that same attitude that we have (Griner, Delle Donna, Diggins,
2013, para. 6).
Jemele Hill (2013), columnist at espn.com, wrote a lead on her piece
about Griner that summed up the overall media reaction: Brittney Griner was so nonchalant and confident when she publicly acknowledged she
is gay, you would have thought she just told the world she liked potato
chips (para. 1). On BleacherReport.com, writer Timothy Rapp (2013) noted, Its obvious that there is far more tolerance on the womens side than
the mens (para. 9). Deadspin.com introduced the story with the headline Griner Outs Herself as Already Out (Cosentino, 2013a). espnw writer
Kate Fagan (2013) noted, Plenty of gay athletes . . . live their lives openly
on a daily basis. They just havent said it on camera or held a news conference (para. 13).
Sympathy and Praise
Several writers issued sympathetic or laudatory pieces about Griners public acknowledgement. They praised her for advancing acceptance. Wrote
Jay Busbee (2013a) of Yahoo! Sports, If tolerance spreads across sports, itll
be people like Griner, who states her case for her identity with confidence
and pride, who deserve credit (para. 4).
In reaction to a New York Times column that Griner wrote, in which she
described her mothers acceptance of her sexuality and some of her peers
cruelty, Timothy Rapp commented on BleacherReport.com:
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Journal of Sports Media, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 2016

There will always be mean people out there who mock the differences
they see in others . . . but by sharing their stories and proudly announcing their homosexuality, Collins and Griner have taken an important
step toward promoting tolerance for athletes of all races, genders and
sexual orientations. (Rapp, 2013, para. 17)
Another BleacherReport.com writer, Tim Keeney (2013), called Griner
a role model to young girls all over the country and wrote that her message was refreshing (para. 11). On Deadspin.com, writer Dom Cosentino
discussed the verbal and written abuse Griner had suffered, including people who questioned whether she was a woman, people who shouted racial
and homophobic slurs, and horrendous online comments.
Griner has been able to deal with such abuse because of the support she
has from her mother, and other family and friends. But she knows a lot
of other young people coming to terms with their sexuality dont have
something like that to fall back on. (Cosentino, 2013b, para. 7)
On espn.com Jemele Hill (2013) praised Griners courage: If you think
that this was easy for Griner because shes a woman, youre trivializing
how sensitive and frightening the coming-out process can be (para. 7).
Griners Athletic Agency
Another theme concerned Griners extraordinary athletic talent and ability. An article on espn.com noted that she is the second all-time scorer in
womens ncaa history with 3,283 points and the top shot-blocker ever
(Brittney Griner Discusses, 2013, para. 2)breaking both mens and
womens records. She also set a womens record for dunking. Several of
the articles mentioned she was the Number 1 draft pick in the wnba. Rapp
(2013) of BleacherReport.com argued that she was one of the most accomplished college basketball players of all time and could end up being one of
the greatest female players ever (para. 7). Busbee (2013a) of Yahoo! Sports
wrote that she is one of the best female basketball players on the planet
(para. 1). In her professional debut, Griner became the fi rst wnba player to
dunk twice in one game.
Discussion
The media discourse within one month of the self-outings of these two
athletes revealed that Collinss announcement was considered big news,
Dann & Everbach: Opening the Sports Closet

183

yet Griners was not. It is not surprising that these media outlets ran fewer articles and broadcasts about Griner compared with Collins, since Collinss announcement constituted a first in the sports world. In addition,
women athletes consistently receive less media attention than men and
are more likely to be stereotyped as gay, especially female basketball players (Kauer & Krane, 2006). Masculine hegemony reinforces the stereotype
that many female athletes are masculine, especially women who do not fit
the Western societal ideal of what is considered attractive: light skinned,
light haired, thin, and shorter in height than most men. Griner is Black, 6
foot 8, 199 pounds, and speaks in a deeper tone than most women use. She
wears her hair in dreadlocks and has tattoos on her arms and shoulders.
She is aggressive and powerful, and she can dunk. Since she deviates in appearance, athletic talent, and skill from the standard societal defi nition of
femininity, she defies socially constructed notions of masculinity and femininity established under masculine hegemony.
The media discourse about Collins identified him as the fi rst professional athlete in major team sports to come out publicly while still playing, when in fact he was the fi rst male professional athlete in U.S. top team
sports to come out publicly while still playing. The sports world considers male athletes the norm, especially Black males, who are expected to
be athletic in team sports. Masculine hegemony links masculinity with
heterosexuality, meaning homosexuality is not expected in masculine
sports like basketball (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Therefore, the
coverage of Collinss revelation treated his announcement as historic. Collins (2013) wrote in his Sports Illustrated article that he defies a stereotype of
gay-male passivity and weakness: Ive always been an aggressive player,
even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesnt make
you soft? (para. 22).
The lgbtq community was a major focus of this coverage, a difference
from most past media coverage that treated mens sports as if they had no
homosexual participants. A majority of the coverage called for tolerance
and acceptance of these athletes. The media coverage showed that womens sports have taken more steps in that direction than mens, most likely
because several prominent female athletes have announced or confi rmed
their homosexuality since the 1970s. Because of Collinss courage, more
male athletes could follow suit. In fact, when University of Missouri football player Michael Sam came out publicly in February 2014, he noted that
Collins had inspired him. Sam became the fi rst openly gay player drafted
into the nfl when the St. Louis Rams signed him in May of that year. (He
later was cut from the team and from the Dallas Cowboys practice squad.)
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Although Collins said his goal in coming out publicly was not to break
any barriers, this study shows that the issue of gay athletes has evolved
from locker room whispers and taunts to news. Most of the coverage was
supportive of Collins and Griner. Collins (2013) wrote,
Im glad Im coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted;
public opinion has shifted. And yet we have so much farther to go. Everyone is terrified of the unknown, but most of us dont want to return
to a time when minorities are openly discriminated against. (para. 26)
Sports media in these cases produced a discourse that reflected hesitant
acceptance of gay athletes. Male football and basketball players who are
gay allow the possibility of gay men who are aggressive, strong, and powerful. However, since socially constructed cultural expectations of masculinity and femininity are fi rmly entrenched in Western society, some
discrimination against those who fall outside expected norms is likely to
remain. In another recent study on Collinss coming out, Billings, Moscowitz, Rae, and Brown (2015) examined traditional and social media and
found that both took a tone of congratulations and celebration after Collinss Sports Illustrated story. However, the authors noted that these responses are far from an indication that equality for gays and lesbians in
sport and in the culture at large has been achieved. It is clear that masculine hegemony continues to exclude gays and lesbians from mainstream
coverage of sports (Kian, Vincent, & Mondello, 2008).
This study has limitations, since it is only one snapshot of media coverage of gay athletes. A qualitative examination is also an iterative process
that may change over time and context. The fact that only one researcher
conducted the qualitative analysis could have added bias to the media coverage interpretation.
Future research should examine whether gay male and female athletes
will be accepted and embraced by society and the sporting world. Whether more gay male athletes will be comfortable coming out while playing
professional sport presents a lingering question. For male athletes, masculine hegemony continues to dictate that coming out may be risky to
their careers and that they might face public criticism. For female athletes,
coming out appears to be less of a detriment to their athletic careers, but
it may affect their ability to gain endorsements and other outside income,
because sexualization of female athletes remains a common way to appeal
to male audiences.
Tolerance of gay people is rising in American society, as shown by the
Dann & Everbach: Opening the Sports Closet

185

legalization of same-sex marriage. Tolerance of gay athletes appears to be


on the rise as well, but their acceptance remains in question. As Connell
and Messerschmidt (2005) pointed out, the concept of masculine hegemony consistently faces reexamination and is altered over time. The societal
perceptions of male and female athletes are likely to be challenged and to
change as society adapts and becomes more accepting of lgbtq people.
Lori Dann is a journalism professor and program coordinator at Eastfield College in
Mesquite, Texas. She teaches courses in news and sports reporting, media literacy, and mass communication and is the faculty adviser of the student newspaper.
Previously, she spent 20 years working in sports journalism, most recently as a sports
reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas and as assistant sports editor at the
Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama.
Tracy Everbach, PhD, is an associate professor of journalism in the Mayborn School
of Journalism at the University of North Texas. She teaches undergraduate and
graduate classes on race, gender, and media; news reporting; mass-communication
theories; and qualitative research methods. Her research focuses on womens work
and leadership in journalism and on representations of race and gender in media. She
is a former newspaper reporter, including 12 years on the city news desk at the Dallas
Morning News.

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