Credit: Ryan Dinsdale

High pressure play: the struggle of being gay in male sport

8 mins read

Men’s competitive sport seldom features gay athletes. “Growing up, you want to be able to see people that are like you, but you don’t.” This leaves Craig Stephen, Stirling University’s president of men’s basketball, and an openly gay man, with little choice for a role model.

The UK basketball scene is barren already; professional teams rarely see coverage outside of their local areas. This turns the gaze of young fans to the National Basketball Association of America, the NBA.

If you’re a gay man, however, searching for an athlete to connect with on that level produces pitiful results. In it’s 72-year history, the NBA has had two openly gay players. Just two. “Openly” is the key word though. 11-time All Star Charles Barkley explained on CBS Sports that everybody in the NBA has played with a gay teammate.

So why do these athletes hide their sexuality? “They’re worried about public backlash,” hypothesises Stephen. “They know their team’s going to accept it. It’s not wider management.” The fans are the biggest problem, he explains, and their mass unacceptance of certain people’s identity.

Sport organisations are historically scared of controversy. Stephen brings up the Colin Kaepernick situation, an NFL player who protested racial injustice and systematic oppression by kneeling during the national anthem. Not a single NFL team would sign Kaepernick the following season.

“They got rid of him, they can’t deal with the controversy,” says Stephen. These organisations are too concerned with making money to make a powerful statement against an oppressed athlete, and this is a major problem for gay men in sports.

Instead of removing the problem altogether, Stephen believes that organisations should “use this as an opportunity to further the athlete’s voice and choose something which is going to be better for society as a whole.”

“And something like that, a sort of breakthrough moment in terms of gay men in male orientated sports. We need something like that.” Being supported instead of shamed, respected instead of removed. “That whole hearted support is something which I think will bring about change.”

This stance by a major sporting organisation could create a positive reaction that proves monumental for the gay community, or any oppressed athlete. It could initiate a movement of equality, forming new ideas and policies that (literally) change the game.

Credit: Ryan Dinsdale

Though true for many sports, basketball especially is a game of expression as players channel emotion to extend their talent and flourish on the court. So guess what suppression creates.

Before coming out, and despite playing for years, Stephen felt that he couldn’t relate to his teammates, or even basketball as a culture. He felt distant. It extended to his play on the court as he worried more about other’s opinions instead of their operating as a team.

Once he came out to his teammates, though, everything became a lot more comfortable. “Once you get it out there in the open, and nobody has an issue with it, you’re free to essentially do what you need to do on court.”

A basketball game features two teams however, and the problem is amplified when the opponents use disrespectful language. It’s happened too many times to count, Stephen explains. Though not specifically targeting him, it’s the “that’s gay” jokes that are frequently thrown around.

“It’s the connotations that you don’t want to be gay.” It’s a prominent issue within male sport and greater society beyond that, says Stephen. It’s easier to explain the problem amongst friends, but “I’ve been on court against other teams and I’ve heard people making comments, and I didn’t feel comfortable in that kind of scenario.”

“You can’t stop and think about it because you’re in the middle of the game, but you still want to act on it and point it out.” You’re faced with another level of pressure, on top of the already intense scenario; that just isn’t fair. “That is a constant battle that you have as a gay man in sport” says Stephen. Not knowing where to draw the line in terms of what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Stephen spends a large portion of his free time advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community (encompassing all sexualities and gender identities). But despite all the effort he puts in, he still has to endure homophobic comments, and the struggle of whether to act or not. “It puts you in such a vulnerable position.”

While these comments may seem insignificant to some, and even if they’re said in jest, “it’s never just a joke.” Even if you don’t mean it, what does it tell the people that do? It fosters an environment where it’s okay to say those things, Stephen explains. It is not; “there is no such thing as just a joke.”

Positive movements can come from small acts too though. Rainbow laces, for example, is an initiative where athletes don rainbow laces (surprisingly) to show support for the LGBTQ+ community.

While the athletes may not realise how much this means, Stephen explains that it’s incredibly important. For someone who may be gay, that’s amazing. “You know that you’re walking into a room full of people who aren’t going to make a big deal out of it.”

It’s this aspect that reiterates how problematic homophobia is; that it’s a rare relief to be comfortable in yourself. I noticed this a few times during my conversation with Stephen, as he mentioned that he was fortunate to receive positivity after coming out, or fortunate to be relatively masculine and therefore judged less within basketball.

But sport is meant to be wholly inclusive. A gay man may be allowed to take part, but this doesn’t mean he’s treated the same. Homophobia is still a prevalent issue in male sport that needs to be tackled. No one should have to feel fortunate for being treated like a person, and being respected should not be a privilege.

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