Rainbows are taking over the sports calendar during Pride Month. Every pro sports league is celebrating LGBTQ Pride with inclusivity initiatives and apparel, as well as annual Pride Nights. Just 10 years ago, it was an anomaly for any pro sports franchise to hold officially LGBTQ-themed events.
Now, 20 MLB teams are scheduled to hold a Pride Night this season. That’s one indication of how far we’ve come.
At Outsports, where I serve as deputy managing editor, we tell the stories of LGBTQ athletes every day. Though there remains a dearth of active openly gay players in the major male professional team sports, athletes come out all the time in the college and high school ranks — as well as across women’s pro sports. A recent study of Outsports stories shows the overwhelming majority of male athletes are accepting of openly gay teammates. Attitudes have changed, even if the numbers haven’t caught up yet.
There are a lot of trailblazers to acknowledge. Without these brave pro athletes, that closeted junior on the high school basketball team may not have the courage to live their truth. To commemorate Pride Month, we’ve listed 10 living LGBTQ pioneers in the world of sports. Their inspiring stories are below:
David Kopay: The longtime running back was the first professional team sport athlete to come out as gay — way back in 1976. It was a different world back then for LGBTQ people: sodomy laws were in existence; homosexuality was still widely considered to be a mental illness. But Kopay came out in the immediate aftermath of his nine-year NFL career, and his 1977 biography became a best-seller.
“I got very, very few hate mails,” Kopay told Outsports in 2011. “Mostly the mail that poured in was amazingly supportive and telling their own stories. There were hundreds of letters forwarded to me.”
Kopay, 79, has remained a prominent voice in the fight for LGBTQ inclusion. It’s not an exaggeration to say he’s the most significant gay athlete in modern history.
Michael Sam: The 2013 SEC co-defensive player of the year made history when the Rams selected him in the 2014 NFL Draft, becoming the first openly gay player to be drafted. But the doors to the NFL shut on Sam as quickly as they opened. The Rams cut him at the end of training camp, and after an eight-week stint on the Cowboys’ practice squad, he was out of the league.
Sam signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL in 2015, but announced he was walking away from football due to mental health reasons shortly thereafter.
Since then, Sam has appeared on “Dancing with the Stars” and shared his story with Oprah. He embarked on a college speaking tour in 2019.
Before we go further, any piece about LGBTQ pioneers would be woefully incomplete without acknowledging high-flying former Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke, the first MLB player to publicly come out as gay, and also the inventor of the high-five. Burke made the announcement shortly after his playing career, but never denied his sexuality while he was in uniform. While his teammates widely supported him, his coaches did not. Tommy Lasorda was a virulent homophobe (he denied his gay son’s sexual orientation in a 1992 GQ interview) and A’s skipper Billy Martin infamously introduced Burke to his team as a “f—.” Famously, Burke rejected a $75,000 offer from the Dodgers to get married.
Burke originally thrived as an openly gay man, even winning medals in the Gay Games. But then a drug addiction brought him to destitution. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1995. On Friday, the A’s are holding their inaugural Glenn Burke Day.
Decades later, Burke’s legacy lives on, and one man has been instrumental in making sure he’s never forgotten: Billy Bean.
Billy Bean: A career .226 hitter, Bean is one of the rare pro athletes whose true impact on the game came after he quit. He came out publicly in 1999, and wrote a book about his life as a closeted baseball player. In 2014, MLB hired Bean to serve as its first “Ambassador for Inclusion,” and he’s changed the culture of the sport. Every MLB team has held a Pride Night, except the Texas Rangers.
David Denson: The former Brewers prospect became the first active player affiliated with an MLB organization to come out as gay in 2015. He consulted with Bean prior to coming out, a testament to his impact on the game. Former MLB umpire Dale Scott, who came out in 2014, did the same.
John Amaechi: The five-year veteran became the first NBA player to publicly come out as gay in 2007. Numerous NBA stars, including Shaquille O’Neal and Scottie Pippen, extended their support. But unfortunately, Tim Hardaway’s acerbic reaction overshadowed the well-wishes: “You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known,” he said at the time. (To Hardaway’s credit, he’s become an ally in the ensuing years, even becoming the first person to add his name to a petition demanding that Florida legalize same-sex marriage.)
Today, Amaechi is a psychologist.
Jason Collins: Six years after Amaechi, Jason Collins announced he was gay, and just like that, became the first active openly gay NBA player in history. The biggest stars in the game — LeBron James, Kobe Bryant — as well as President Barack Obama extended their congratulations.
Importantly, Collins signed another contract after coming out, a 10-day deal with the Nets in 2014. He currently works in LGBTQ advocacy.
Rick Welts: The Hall of Fame executive publicly came out in 2011, and then went on to enjoy the most successful period of his illustrious career. As president and CEO, he hel