Why this matters
LGBTQ student-athletes no longer have to face issues related to their sexuality alone as increasing numbers of support groups are forming.
PHOENIX — Michael Sam made history five years ago when he became the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL.He realized he was gay during his freshman year of college, he said, and was dating somebody who was openly gay. He said the relationship was difficult since he was in the closet, and, when rumors started spreading that he was gay, he distanced himself from the relationship out of fear.
His reaction might have been different had there been organizations such as LGBT SportsSafe, a group that looks to promote more inclusiveness on college campuses.
“We felt there was a need for this in the sports community,” said Eric Lueshen, an openly gay football player at Nebraska who co-founded the organization with Nevin Caple in 2016. “Historically, there’s been a lot of sports organizations who’ve done a lot of political awareness initiatives, like creating inclusion videos and stuff,”
“We needed to develop a program that dives a little deeper and was more education-focused, so that the coaches, administrators and staff have the necessary tools and resources to show up for the student-athlete and their identities.”
Caple and Lueshen were involved in diversity consulting with athletic programs while working closely with the NCAA Office of Inclusion. After some speaking engagements and presentations at summits and forums, the two found word was spreading about their program.
Lueshen visited the University of Arizona in August 2017 as My-King Johnson, who is openly gay, was beginning his freshman season with the Wildcats football team.
“They wanted to know, ‘How can we show up for My-King and any other athlete that may identify as LGBTQ as well as any of the straight athletes on the team? How can we show up for everyone of all identities?’ ” Lueshen said. “I went down there and did a couple of workshops with them and educated their coaches, administrators and staff.”
Lueshen said LGBTQ student-athletes face many challenges, including how society sees sports in a context of masculinity and femininity.
“For LGBTQ athletes, especially at the collegiate level, they have to deal with the burden. If it’s a male athlete in football, basketball, hockey or baseball, they are faced with other preconceived notions of what it means to be a man, and they are forced to conform to certain ideas of what it means to be a man.”
Finding an identity
Sam wrestled with those issues. And when his college relationship reached its breaking point, Sam’s then- boyfriend asked him, “When you look at yourself in the mirror, who do you see?”
Sam took that question to heart, and that summer, after attending St. Louis PrideFest, he came out to his Missouri teammates.
“I went to St. Louis Pride to see how people would view me in public,” Sam said. “When I went to St. Louis Pride, I felt so comfortable and I felt no one was judging me. I was there to have a good time, and I was there to be free. It had such a positive impact on me.
“On the first day of camp, coach (Gary) Pinkel had us stand before our teammates and say who you are, what’s your major, where are you from and say something about yourself that no one knows,” Sam said. “I said my name is Michael Sam, I’m from Hitchcock, Texas, I’m majoring in sports management, and then I paused and said I was gay.”
It took time for Sam to feel comfortable coming out. He recalled an instance at Missouri when he left the practice field upset.
“It was the first day of practice after coming off a big bowl win against Georgia. Our coaches were putting a lot of pressure on us due to us losing our quarterback, James Franklin, the week before,” Sam said. “We were halfway through practice; tensions were high because of the heat and I couldn’t hear a call and at this point, one of my teammates -- my friends and my brother -- called me a faggot. I was distraught. I walked off the field and I went home.”
That kind of slander is common, according to Athlete Ally, an organization whose mission is “to end rampant homophobia and transphobia in sport and to activate the athletic community to exercise their leadership to champion LGBTQ equality.”
Anne Lieberman, the director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, said she believes the acceptance and inclusion of LGTBQ athletes starts with education from the organization’s leaders.
“We have to do that one-to-one education to change hearts and minds and change people’s perspective on LGBTQ athletes in general.”
Athlete Ally launched a free, online comprehensive curriculum called Champions of Inclusion that focuses on LGBTQ respect and inclusiveness within sport.
Lieberman said the policies that govern sport seldom reflect the diversity of the people playing the sports, stressing the importance of LGBTQ inclusive policies and practices, especially when it comes to transgender and non-binary athletes.
“We have to do that one-to-one education to change hearts and minds and change people’s perspective on LGBTQ athletes in general.” - Anne Lieberman, director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally
In 2017, Athlete Ally published a report called the Athletic Equality Index as a way to measure LGBTQ inclusion policies and practices among NCAA Power Five conferences and universities.
Among the Power Five conferences, the Pac-12 received the highest grade, 82.4 points, out of a possible 100.
Lieberman said the report allows universities to see how they rank on key measures of LGBTQ acceptance and inclusion, policies and practices.
“We really hope it’s a baseline that schools will be able to see and adjust some of their practices, so they are more LGBTQ inclusive,” Lieberman said. “But also that student-athlete activists will be able to organize and mobilize and say, ‘you know what, my school doesn’t have a policy that includes trans and non-binary athletes and why is that?’ ”
Male vs. female discrimination
Lueshen believes homophobia breeds in different ways when it comes to men’s and women’s sports. He said when a male athlete comes out, it is seen more as an anomaly not affecting the perception of the program. But, if (it is) a female athlete, it could affect their reputation and the coach’s ability to recruit if they are seen as having a lesbian program.
He also mentioned how an LGBTQ athlete might be fearful of coming out if they don’t know their coaches or administrators are inclusive and if they’re going to be accepted.
As for what universities and athletic programs could do right now to promote a more inclusive and safe environment for LGBTQ athletes, Lueshen said education.
“I can’t stress how important (education) is because often, especially in sports communities, you see silence on topics around LGBTQ inclusion. When we stay silent on these topics, it allows homophobia, transphobia and biphobia to kind of live and run rampant,” Lueshen said. “Education is key because going in and having these discussions around how we can show up for our student-athletes and all their identities, it can really help break the ice so once coaches and administrators start talking about it, they realize it isn’t a taboo subject and it’s happening everywhere and it’s common, it’s normal and you can have these discussions.”
"When we stay silent on these topics, it allows homophobia, transphobia and biphobia to kind of live and run rampant." - Eric Lueshen an openly gay football player at Nebraska who co-founded LGBT SportsSafe
Athlete Ally hopes those conversations are being held at all levels of sports.
The organization worked on the North American FIFA World Cup 2026 bid to make sure events are held in areas of the country that are inclusive and respect the human rights of LGBTQ athletes, players and fans.
Also, Athlete Ally has more than 200 LGBTQ-identified and allies ambassadors to speak publicly about LGBTQ human rights.
“With the ambassador program, our athletes are given opportunities to speak up and out,” Lieberman said. “For example, that policy campaign that we work on could be a particular campaign with a state-based LGBTQ organization. It could be writing an op-ed on a particular issue.”
Athlete Ally also has 19 college chapters that are led by student-athlete activists who want to continue the conversation on campus around LGBTQ respect and inclusion.
Lieberman said the folks that need education and perspective on LGBTQ respect and inclusion are often the least educated. She hopes once people in leadership begin educating themselves on LGBTQ issues, the conversation will start changing.
“There really is a trickle-down effect when we work with leadership because once they see the importance of diversity and inclusion in athletics, then they’re able to share those core values with coaches, teams and athletes and really create a great and connected group of athletes, coaches and leadership in the athletic department that believe in the importance of LGBTQ initiative in sport.”