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When Nashville Predators prospect Luke Prokop came out this week, it was the first time an active player under contract with an NHL team had publicly acknowledged that he was gay.
Overnight, Prokop’s announcement doubled the number of gay athletes currently playing in the country’s four major men’s sports: football, basketball, baseball and hockey. Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib was released last month.
The back-to-back announcements were met with a wave of support from other players, teams, league officials and fans.
They also highlighted the dearth of openly gay gamers in the hypermasculine world of US male professional sports, often dubbed “the last closet” for its lack of LGBTQ representation. Although many former retired players have come out, it is more unusual for male professional athletes to say they are gay while playing.
“This is an example of how society at large is changing much faster than the institution of sport or the cultures of sport have,” said Cheryl Cooky, professor of American studies and studies on women, gender and sexuality at Purdue University.
Gay male athletes face cultural barriers
Part of the reason for the lack of gay players in male professional sports might be that there are just fewer in the game.
Rory Magrath, a researcher at Solent University in England, has suggested that it is possible that gay men are under-represented in professional sports.
“Gay men are a finite resource, so they can’t exist in large numbers every quarter,” Magrath told Outsports.com. “Gay men are over-represented in some areas and, as a result, are going to be under-represented in sport.”
A 2018 study of youth sports in British Columbia, Canada found that “sexual minority” students were less likely to participate in sports than their heterosexual peers.
This could be due to the male culture at the center of these major sports, experts say, creating a less welcoming environment for gay athletes.
Cooky also pointed to the recent wave of bills introduced in state legislatures across the country to ban transgender girls from participating in women’s sports.
They risk criticism for coming out
For the professional athletes coming out, many have received support. Magrath helped the author of a study which found that male athletes who came out as gay while still playing sports were widely accepted by their teammates.
Robbie Rogers made history in 2013 when he took the field for the Los Angeles Galaxy after being the first openly gay player in professional American football, calling the first game after his announcement “normal” and “really perfect. “. (The Galaxy won 4-0.)
NBA player Jason Collins, who came out in 2013 while still playing in the league, later told NPR “it went well” when he described the period after announcing he was gay.
But it’s not always the case. And professional athletes can risk their careers or worse for telling the truth about their sexuality.
After Michael Sam became the first openly gay athlete to be drafted into the NFL in 2014, then-Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones tweeted “horrible,” resulting in penalties and suspension.
David Kopay, a former NFL running back released in 1975, was unable to land a professional coaching job after publicly announcing he was gay.
There are key differences in the cultures of male and female athletics
While few active players in major men’s sports leagues have come out, many professional female athletes have publicly declared themselves gay, from American football superstar Megan Rapinoe to tennis legend Billie Jean King.
According to Cooky, this indicates a key difference between the cultures of male and female athletics.
“For women, historic participation in sport has meant challenging gender expectations and norms and behaviors,” she told NPR. “While for men, playing sports demonstrates, reaffirms and embodies all of these characteristics that we expect from men. “
It’s still unclear if that will change after the announcements from Nassib and Prokop. Cooky said she didn’t know what was going to change now, but said she wasn’t convinced there had been a “180 change” in the predominantly male culture of the four major male sports, so that many more athletes will come out publicly.
“It could be more of a trickle than opening the floodgates,” she said.