Brittney Griner and Jason Collins May Prove It Pays to be Gay in the (W)NBA

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When Brittney Griner talked about her sexuality after the WNBA draft earlier this month, she did not — as Trish Bendix noted on Twitter — “confess” or “admit” that she’s gay. She simply confirmed on the national stage what she’s been open about in her private life for quite awhile: She’s an out-and-proud lesbian woman. One week later, Griner signed a “big time” deal with Nike, which just happens to be a big damn deal for professional athletes everywhere.

At the women’s basketball Final Four in 1995, I walked right up to Sheryl Swoopes and asked for her autograph. She was sitting alone at a makeshift table just outside of Lady Foot Locker in the Mall of America with a stack of Nike posters promoting the new Air Swoopes — the first-ever Nike shoe named after a female athlete. A decade later, in 2005, Swoopes came out as a queer woman. Other famous female ballers have come out as lesbians since then: Chamique Holdsclaw, for example; and Seimone Augustus. But Griner is the first high profile WNBA player to come out before her career has even started.

Of course, when Nike named a shoe after Sheryl Swoopes, women’s professional basketball in the United States was just a dream. It would take two years, one Olympic gold medal, and an Olympic team exhibition tour that traveled the country and boasted over 100 games before the WNBA would become a reality. And when it did, the league made sure to brand itself as a place where beautiful, straight ladies gathered to engage in well-mannered competition. It was a marketing tactic reminiscent of A League of Their Own. In fact, as late as 2011, Lisa Leslie — one of the longtime faces of the WNBA and a literal supermodel — got into a squabble with TMZ, asking them to stop perpetuating the stereotype that all female basketballers are lesbians. She even countered TMZ’s “statistic” (99% of WNBA players are lesbians) with one of her own (maybe 30% of WNBA players are lesbians).

The message: It’s unflattering (at best) and detrimental (at worst) to be considered a lesbian athlete.

To the league’s credit, it only took the WNBA a few seasons to realize that their best chance at survival was to reach out to the lesbian community. In 2001, the LA Sparks organized the first-ever professional sporting fan event targeted specifically at gay women. Every Sparks team member (except for Lisa Leslie) attended a pep rally sponsored by WeHo’s Girl Bar and the team followed it up with Gay Pride Night at a Sparks game. It was such a successful campaign that team co-owner Jerry Buss told ESPN that being on stage with the Sparks made him feel like a Backstreet Boy.

Yet a decade later, only a handful of WNBA players themselves have come out as queer women.

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But Griner has completely stepped outside of WNBA convention. The #1 draft pick is unashamed of her gender atypical characteristics: her height, her deep voice, her enormous wingspan. She even wore a super fly suit to the WNBA draft. And as soon as the question was on the table about her sexual orientation, she happily confirmed that she is, indeed, a lesbian. It was surprising and refreshing to see a future WNBA superstar speak candidly about her sexuality, especially when the message we’ve been hearing for years is that coming out kills earnings potential for athletes and actors and musicians alike. And it was downright shocking when Nike followed Griner’s mold-breaking lead.

In fact, Nike may just make a habit of promoting gay athletes. When NBA star Jason Collins came out on the cover of Sports Illustrated today, AdWeek noted that Nike is Collins’ only known sponsor, and that they expect the company to launch a new TV campaign built around him: “The attitude needs to be, ‘This is actually not that big of deal. Its time has come. There will be more gay athletes coming out. It’s just the beginning.'”

It may be just the beginning, but these game-changing players have been a long time coming.