Sheryl Swoopes has long been a contentious figure in the lesbian community. She was MVP of the WNBA when she came out as in a relationship with a woman, assistant coach Alisa Scott, in 2005, and became the spokeswoman for Olivia Cruises. While some fans were celebrating her announcement, Sheryl said she had made a “choice” to be gay, which didn’t sit well with others in the LGBT community. Later, she was (and still is) engaged to a man, furthering her backlash from some gay women.
“So often now we do films now sort of from the outside in, or we do sports from the outside in,” Hannah said, “where people are commenting on the athlete and on their careers and their place in history from the inside out. That person doesn’t really have a voice. For me, the principal person the film is about, it’s their voice. Sheryl is clearly the dominant voice in the film. And the people who have intimate knowledge of Sheryl Swoopes and what happened were there, so it’s a very authentic film.”
Hannah interviewed Sheryl’s former teammate Cynthia Cooper, Nike chairman Phil Knight, NBA commissioner David Stern, former WNBA star Sue Wicks, as well as Sheryl’s brother and fiance. What’s interesting about the commentary is it’s clear everyone involved has a different idea about what happened with Sheryl’s career, especially regarding her coming out when she was at the top of her game. In fact the discussion of Sheryl’s announcement and the aftermath is discussed heavily half-way through the documentary, after her success was established and her marketing deals with Nike and the WNBA were in place.
“I spent a lot of time and thought in making that really handling that properly because that’s—it’s a multi-layered issue and discussion, and I didn’t want to oversimplify or gloss over what had happened,” Hannah said. “I really wanted to lay out all the different reactions. The way she felt, the reaction of the LGBT community, the reaction of the league, the reaction of corporate America—and so what you alluded to, I really took my time and I wanted that done correctly. It was really important. It’s such a groundbreaking announcement.”
Hannah, who met Sheryl on assignment in Houston during the WNBA’s inaugural year, said she wants nothing more than for people to remember that Sheryl was the first person to come out in a major team sport, something that has since happened for players like Brittney Griner, but how important it was that Sheryl did it when she was the WNBA’s top player.
“If you look at other athletes who’ve come out – I think the most obvious comparison was Martina Navratilova, and Martina was different in the sense that she was in an individual sport,” Hannah said. “And so in terms of team sports, we have yet to have a big superstar in a team sport level to come out as gay. Certainly there are those that come out but not a big superstar at that level, a household name. I just felt that that was a critically important part of the film and one that all the different layers needed to be explored.”
In Swoopes, Sheryl describes how she began to “lean on” Alissa after separating from her husband, and how it turned into something more than a friendship.
“I think for anyone who is going through a life changing experience, and going through a divorce is a life changing experience, sometimes you need a friend,” she said. “So that friend that I found happened to be another woman. Never did I think it would get to a point where we would be more than friends. I found myself at times just, you know, questioning and saying ‘Whoa—what is, like, what’s really going on?’ Like how did this happen? But once I came to terms with me being OK with it, I didn’t really care if anybody else was OK with it or not— meaning my teammates, my coaches, the WNBA, my mom, my brothers—it didn’t matter. I deserve to be happy and if this is what makes me happy and if being with her makes me happy, then so be it.”
Although the gay community celebrated her relationship, viewpoints around her differed, and at the time the WNBA wasn’t as supportive of Sheryl as she had hoped. “They had turned their backs on me,” Sheryl says in the film, but the WNBA sees it differently.
“I think she felt that her marketing opportunities had dried up,” Hannah said. “But at the same time, then she got a huge opportunity with Olivia Cruise line, and that was very lucrative. From her perspective, she might have seen some things dry up, but she acknowledges she actually received a financial lifeline from Olivia Cruise line. So there were some marketing opportunities that might have gone by the wayside. I don’t know if they were officially league mandated opportunities, or if they were league appearances that went by the wayside, but I found it interesting to hear [the WNBA] say all along she was marketed as a heterosexual, as a mother so what do you do now because she has to be transparent as a brand? It’s very practical and true. I’m not sure you’ll ever get a consensus of what happened.”
Sue Wicks, another out player who played against Sheryl in the league’s beginning, calls Sheryl a pioneer in the film. “Part of that is being authentic yourself, not waiting for someone to go and say ‘Is it safe?’ I’m going to forge the path to say ‘Here I am,’ takes a lot of courage.’ She had a lot to lose. She never said she was a lesbian, she never said she was heterosexual. The one thing she said was she was in love with another person.”
Outside of Sheryl’s career, her coming out forced the WNBA and the sports community at large to discuss homosexuality and pro athletes.
“The general consensus was a pat on the back,” Hannah said. “It was either pat her on the back or ‘Wow, she’s hurting the league.’ Whereas I think if it happened today, it’d be a lot more accepted. Why would it be accepted? Because of Sheryl Swoopes. She got people talking about it, she got the league thinking about this issue. “Who is our fanbase? Who are we marketing to? Who are our players?” Frankly sports and homosexuality weren’t discussed in the same breath, and surely not as much as they are now.”
Hannah said that Jason Collins, an NBA player who came out last year, was greeted with much more praise than Sheryl, who came out eight years ago.
“He’s not a superstar by any stretch of the imagination,” Hannah said. “A lot of basketball fans really aren’t familiar with him. But he was greeted with so much warmth and support: ‘Good for you.’ I think Griner coming out as the number one draft pick – she is praised, she is celebrated, and I’m so happy for that. She wasn’t able to talk about her sexuality in college because her coach told her it would hurt recruiting and now she’s able to be herself and the league is embracing that and I think that is so wonderful. And I think in my mind, we have to go to back to Sheryl Swoopes. Not only as the first mom that paved the way for women who want to have children and play basketball or women who want to have children on a pro level, or as a woman who paved the way in marketing with Nike as a female athlete and therefore being open-minded to women down the road having their own shoes, to her coming out.”
In Swoopes, Phil Knight says that Nike had no issue with Sheryl’s being in a relationship with a woman (“She was not controversial to us internally.”) and her former coach shared the same sentiment (“I had no reservations. Your personal life is your business!”) Interestingly, former WNBA president Val Ackerman says the league supported Sheryl, saying, “It’s about time that others know, more than anything else.” Clearly Sheryl and the league will always have different ideas about what kind of support was available to her after the announcement.
Sheryl’s career eventually took a nosedive to the point where she began having financial troubles, which she also discusses openly in the film. Hannah, a mom to three young girls, said she thought it was a very important topic to discuss, especially because so many women (young women especially) are never taught how to handle their money, and could easily wind up in the same situation Sheryl did, broke and forced to auction off years of acquired jerseys, trophies and memorabilia from a successful career because she couldn’t afford the rent on her storage unit.
“It’s a cautionary tale of knowing what you’re doing with your money,” Hannah said, mentioning that she had talked with Sheryl early on about including a discussion on her bankruptcy in the film.
Sheryl is an open book in Swoopes, frequently teary-eyed but always appearing to be honest, no matter how difficult the topic or memory. And it’s not all bad: There’s also a lot of discussion of her success, how she grew up playing ball with her brothers and how she didn’t want to go too far from home her first year of school. She played for the Houston Comets at a time when they were the number one team that was close to Hannah’s heart, as its her hometown and her mom was a season ticket holder.
“It just felt to me like this great career and great franchise that sort of faded,” Hannah said. “It sort of fizzled out and went away without any appreciation of the Comets and her in particular. I just felt really strongly that this was a story I want to tell so I tracked her down. I found her and we had several discussions on the phone and she did say ‘I do trust you with my story’ and that’s just because I think of my reputation as a journalist and that we knew each other, that I knew so much about the franchise and about her, and that I’d also done a couple of films and projects that were treated with great care.”
Hannah’s first film was Unmatched, the story of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s famous 1973 tennis battle, which she did for the ESPN film series 30 x 30. She followed that up with Moving the Goal, about English soccer player Kelly Smith and her struggle with alcoholism.
“For me, the principal person the film is about, it’s their voice,” Hannah said. “Chrissy and Martina—they are the only two voices in their film. Sheryl is clearly the dominant voice in [this] film. And the people who have intimate knowledge of Sheryl Swoopes and what happened were there, so it’s a very authentic film. Her storyline is not glossed over because her life is very complicated. It has a lot of layers, a lot of twists and turns, and I didn’t want to wrap it up in a nice little easily digestible package. I wanted it to be her voice and her story and the other voices were to compliment that and put in perspective where she’s been.”
Swoopes airs on ESPN’s Nine for IX on Tuesdya, July 30.