Kevin Arnovitz is not a gay basketball journalist. He’s a leading sports journalist who happens to be gay.
So when news broke that the NBA would be the first major professional league with an active gay player, the NBA editor for ESPN.com had to manage competing instincts: He didn’t want to cover the story simply because he is gay, but he wanted to make sure his voice was heard as a gay man covering basketball.
“I’ve always prided myself on being a journalist who could tell you a lot about how basketball games are fundamentally won and lost, about the intricacies of the game, about the dynamics of the NBA as a workplace, rather than the guy who waved the flag,” Arnovitz said.
While gay media outlets have been covering professional sports on the periphery for many years, the coming-out announcements of Jason Collins in the NBA and Michael Sam in the NFL were the first time that many mainstream sports writers have had to report on an athlete’s personal life in such a sensitive nature. Outlets with different focuses have found a balance while covering these stories from their own varying perspectives.
Collins and Sam have different stories, both as professional athletes and as gay men, and their coming-out stories reflected those differences.
Collins, 35, is known as a utility man and has been a highly respected team player throughout his 13 years in the NBA. He penned his own coming out as a personal essay for Sports Illustrated, where he wrote about his journey of self-discovery and declared that he would “lead by example and show that gay players are no different from straight ones.”
Michael Sam, on the other hand, was only 24 and — although he had been named Defensive Player of the Year in his college football conference — he had yet to play in a professional game or even be drafted into the NFL when he came out through interviews with The New York Times, ESPN and Outsports.com.
The profile of a player, be it a longtime veteran who has never been in the spotlight or a prominent college player hoping to be drafted, should have no sway over whether or not a coming-out story gets media coverage, said Michelle Garcia, managing editor of TheAdvocate.com.
“We feel like, if they’re going to be willing to share their story and take a stance in the sports world, we’re at a place where we kind of do have that responsibility to write about them,” she said.
For many gay media outlets, such as TheAdvocate.com, the logistics and analysis of a sport is irrelevant, as long as the sport connects with an LGBT audience in some way.
“At The Advocate, our job isn’t to say who won Sunday night,” Garcia said. “For the most part, our readers really respond to positive sports stories, because they like to see themselves positively reflected in realms like sports.”
There are some challenges, however, when journalists trained specifically in sports reporting are suddenly forced to report on sensitive issues that may be out of their comfort zones.
Garcia recalled an experience talking to Collins alongside other sports reporters.
“I’m standing there with a bunch of reporters, and I heard one of the AP or CBS reporters say, ‘How many different ways are we going to ask him about being gay?’” she said. “You know, their knowledge is as deep as it can be being sports reporters for a mainstream sports organization. They don’t necessarily have the kind of in-depth knowledge looking at race and gender and sexual orientation and gender identity and how all those things play into discrimination in sports.”
“It’s tricky because I think that they want to be respectful, but they don’t know how to go about getting the answers that they’re looking for,” Garcia said. “They want to get what the perspective is, and they want to get the story from the perspective of a gay athlete, but I think that they’re worried about upsetting the players.”
Arnovitz said that he approached the story in a different way because he is not in the gay media, but rather a gay man who works in mainstream media. He credited gay media outlets for being able to bring something to the story that some sports journalists did not.
“I think it’s vitally important to have gay journalists outside of sports media bring us a fresh look on the issue,” he said. “Yeah, they may not understand what it is when 15 guys travel the country together as a team and what it means to coexist in a workplace the way that NBA players do. But I think precisely because they come to it with a fresh pair of eyes, they may be able to offer insight.”
Although it’s been over a year since Collins became the first active player in one of the four major men’s sports leagues to come out as gay, his effect on the NBA and among audiences has yet to be determined.
“I think his impact in the gay world is profound. In the sports world, he is certainly more than just an answer to a trivia question,” said Arnovitz, who described Collins’s first game with the Brooklyn Nets as anticlimactic. “To the average fan? I don’t know. I’ve been surprised. One of the things that we learned in February is that Jason’s first game didn’t really move the needle in the general basketball coverage of a Nets game. It was not a huge story for ESPN.”
Sam, whom Garcia has described as being the “Jackie Robinson of LGBT people” due to his potential to break barriers and make it possible for more openly gay players to join the NFL, has already cemented his place in sports history, according to Erik Hall, assistant sports editor for the Columbia Missourian and one of the first people to interview Sam after his announcement.
“He’s already made history by being the first openly gay athlete to be drafted. He’s already made history by being the first openly gay athlete to play in a preseason game in the NFL. He’ll make history if he’s the first openly gay player to play in a regular season game,” Hall said. “It’s progress.”
One area in the sports world that has yet to progress in terms of media coverage is women’s sports. Sheryl Swoopes became the first openly LGBT active athlete in all of professional team sports back in 2005, an event that did not register with wide audiences the way Collins’s coming-out announcement did. Garcia has criticized the lack of coverage of Brittney Griner, a WNBA All-Star who came out as a lesbian two days after being the No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick.
Griner “is that undeniably great athlete and it takes so much more energy to get coverage of her,” she said. Garcia compared the 23-year-old’s honesty and authenticity to Sam’s character.
“It’s the fact that she represents a generation of female athletes in particular, but athletes in general, who are around her age who don’t care,” Garcia said. “‘Yeah, I’m gay. So what?’”
The next step beyond being the first openly gay athlete is still a mystery. Gay media outlets will continue to cover coming-out stories because their readers respond to that representation in the sports world. Both Arnovitz and Hall agree, however, that in order to really determine what coverage the stories get in mainstream sports media, it will take a certain type of athlete.
“I think it’s going to matter a lot more, to get national attention, who you are and where you play,” Hall said. “If it’s Aaron Rodgers or Chris Bosh, it’s going to be a big deal.”
It’s going to take a superstar, Arnovitz said. The issue will be propelled forward if it is someone whose name alone compels people to watch a game or click on a headline.
“What happens when it’s an all-star point guard?” he asked. “What happens when it’s someone we all unanimously agree is one of the best players in the game? No disrespect to Jason or Michael Sam or anybody else. But when it’s a guy who is on ‘NBA on ESPN’ billboards, that guy? I’m curious to see. By the way, I think it’s going to be wonderful. I think it’s going to be terrific.”
About the Author
Sara Patterson is a student at Temple University. Click here to learn more about her.