In our sports-obsessed culture, 2014 stands out as the year of the gay athlete. Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team, Jason Collins competed as an out gay man in the NBA, and Brittney Griner led the Phoenix Mercury to a WNBA championship, picking up the league’s Defensive Player of the Year honor along the way. In all of this, we cannot forget to mention that several trailblazing athletes paved the path to this progress. It’s in this context that we have the documentary Out to Win.
Director Malcolm Ingram (Small Town Gay Bar) delivers a film that both sports fans and LGBT activists alike can enjoy together. Fanatics of either, however, not so much. This is not the year’s best sports movie, nor a deep analysis of human nature. But it is a fun, educational watch, chock-full of interviews with some of our greatest players.
On that note, the ladies to watch for in this movie are definitely Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. They are two of our earliest out sports icons, both having been outed in 1981 in very different circumstances.
King, who was married to a man at the time, was pushed out of the closet when her former partner Marilyn Barnett filed a palimony suit against her. By contrast, Navratilova, who had defected to the United States from communist Czechoslovakia, was careful to come out only after she had guaranteed her American citizenship. But in what was perhaps a naïve move, during the storm that was brewing around King she came out in an interview with New York Daily News. She asked that her revelation be kept under wraps until she was ready to come out, but a few months later the news was out.
For both women, the loss of commercial endorsements was a reality. If that happened today, it would shock the sports world, as King and Navratilova will go down in history as two of the best to have ever played tennis (we’re talking about two former World No.1’s here). In Navratilova’s case, her titles prove she actually got better after she came out, a fact she speaks to in the movie. It’s an amazing juxtaposition to the central narrative of the film–Michael Sam.
Sam got endorsement deals (hello Visa!). Sam got a reality TV show offer. Sam got mainstream and sports media talking about gay and lesbian inclusion in sports in a light we hadn’t really seen before–that it was absolutely okay to embrace gay athletes.
But he was not the NFL’s No.1 draft pick–he was the 249th. The team that selected him, the St. Louis Rams, cut him at the end of training camp. He was then part of the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, but they ended up waiving him. At the time of writing, he is currently a free agent.
There are some voices out there that claim Sam is not on an NFL team roster because of institutionalized homophobia within the league. Others say the league was desperate for Sam to have shown the kind of form that earned him the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Defensive Player of the Year award.
The truth is, he’s not living up to the athletic expectations placed on him. Yet, he has had more attention on him than most seasoned NFL players got in that same period. It appears then that being an out gay man has not hurt his financial possibilities.
And that right there is a victory.
I would have loved to see the same hype around Brittney Griner, who is featured in the film. She was a great college player who transitioned into a great professional player. In fact, my biggest pet peeve with the movie is that it doesn’t give enough credit to stats and records. In Griner’s case, the massive amount of points she netted in several of her college games and her equaling the WNBA dunk record in her debut game are specifics worth mentioning.
But Out to Win certainly doesn’t shy away from the fact that Griner is gay and that she’s the best at what she does. That’s the point. The same goes for hockey goaltender Charline Labonté, a three-time Olympic gold medal winner for Canada. Labonté was being interviewed for the documentary as her coming out article for OutSports.com, which she penned, hit the web. Watching her read reactions for the first time was positively moving.
Charline at the film’s SXSW premiere
The progress made has not been by chance. Every athlete who has come out has left that closet door open for more to follow. Along the way, there have also been numerous organizations that have helped and continue to help. These organizations and the ordinary people they look out for (as not all athletes are professional athletes) are highlighted in the film as well.
What we see in King and Navratilova’s stories is the past and what was so flawed about it. Interviews with other athletes, like former football player Dave Kopay and retired baseball player Billy Bean, help round that out. But a new generation of athletes gives us hope.
In the stories of Sam, Griner and Labonté, we see a now where it’s okay to be out in sport, and a future where it may be a non-issue entirely.
Out to Win does not have a release just yet, nor an official website. Check your local LGBT film festival to see if it is playing near you soon.