Out of the Outfield

Dan Woog
Dan Woog

More than 10 years ago, I wrote my first “OutField” column. The goal was to offer a mix of out sports stories: national events and trends; profiles of athletes, from high profile to unknown, in sports ranging from major to obscure.

I had lots of ideas. I could interview then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue about how having a gay son helped him become a PFLAG dad. I’d examine whether the Gay Games were still relevant. I’d look at how pro teams handled diversity training, offer a tribute to a gay former college football player who’d recently died of complications relating to a botched suicide attempt, and figure out why the world needed the “National Gay Golf Association.”

Some of those ideas panned out. Others flamed out.

In the decade since, I’ve mined the LGBT sports world. I covered Nike’s foray into diversity and inclusion — including sponsoring several annual summits, with activists and advocates from around the country — as well what happened after the company pulled back. I’ve reported on a gay surfers’ organization, and a gay ping-pong league (who knew?).

I’ve profiled an astonishing array of outstanding men and women (and some who identify as both, or neither).

Lesbians climb in the boxing ring. Bisexuals swim, run and row. Transgender folks play basketball. Gay men figure skate. (Stop the presses on that last one! In fact, the hook for that story was about fighting stereotypes, not feeding into them — as I just did.)

When I started writing The OutField, LGBT athletes were relatively rare. Oops — that’s a statement you’d have heard in the mainstream media. We actually were everywhere; it was out LGBT athletes who were hard to find.

Not anymore. In the past decade, the trickle of competitors who came out to teammates, coaches and (just as importantly) opponents moved from a trickle to a stream. Now it’s a geyser.

First in college sports, and today in high school, coming-out stories are commonplace. Outsports — the go-to website — can scarcely keep up. From the Ivy League and Big Ten to small Christian conferences, on the liberal coasts and in the conservative heartland, every day brings another out athlete.

Their tales have an almost boring sameness. “I was so scared to come out. I worried what everyone would think. I didn’t want to lose my sport. But no one cared. Now I’m so happy!” Over and over again, that’s the story line.

But the repetition is key. Coming-out reports inspire athletes still in the closet to take what seems like a very bold step. The fact that these stories continue to be told says something about the culture of sports. It’s a changing culture I’ve been honored to report on for the past decade.

The locker room is not the only place where sports culture has evolved. It’s apparent in the front offices of teams, and entire leagues. Major League Baseball made a major statement by appointing Billy Bean — an ex-player who came out long after retirement — to the new post of “diversity and inclusion ambassador.” (He’s since been promoted even higher.) The National Football League is proud of its Pride group, filled with LGBT employees and overseen by the human resources department.

“Pride Nights” — once a marketing tool introduced with great trepidation by pro teams in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles — have spread across the country. Stadium Jumbotrons routinely feature same-sex couples on their “Kiss Cams.” Crowds cheer lustily.

A decade of writing The OutField has strengthened my friendships with LGBT sports pioneers like Pat Griffin and Helen Carroll. For longer than most of today’s athletes have been alive, these women have worked fiercely to make the sports world open and accepting to all. They’ve expanded their reach from the usual suspects — coaches and athletic administrators — to areas once thought untouchable. The column I wrote on a meeting Pat and Helen organized with representatives of LGBT and faith-based organizations was one of my favorites.

Two other important trends have been the rise of trans issues in sports (including updating rules and policies by colleges and state high school athletic federations), and the importance of straight allies (special hats off to Athlete Ally’s Hudson Taylor, and former NFL kicker Chris Kluwe).

A decade of The OutField has been fulfilling and inspiring — hopefully as much to readers as to me. Our LGBT sports world is in good hands.

Which is why this is my last column. I do lots of other things besides writing once a month here: I’m an openly gay high school soccer coach, and am very active in our United Soccer Coaches’ national advocacy work, to name two. I’ll continue with all that.

At the same time, I’ll enjoy watching our great LGBT sports world from the stands.

Dan Woog
Dan Woog

Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach and gay activist. His latest book is We Kick Balls: True Stories from the Youth Soccer Wars. Follow him at Twitter @danwoog.