Swoopes' coming out prompts three big questions

Updated: November 23, 2005, 1:24 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Since starting this column for ESPN.com in 1996, I haven't done many "follow-up" columns in direct response to e-mail. But, a few times, that has been warranted. In the case of the Sheryl Swoopes column recently, I think it's worthwhile sorting through reader feedback.

Sheryl Swoopes
Max Cardelli/for ESPN Sheryl Swoopes' announcement "orchestrated" by a lesbian cruise line? Get real. It's ridiculous to suggest that Swoopes got into a long-term relationship with a woman saying, "You know, in about seven or eight years, I'll cash in on this."

Homosexuality in sports is an issue about which there has been too much silence for way too long. It's a reality that needs discussion on a periodic basis, not just "Oh, we had a big coming-out story, now let's all forget about the whole subject until forced to confront it again."

The majority of the e-mail I received was positive toward Swoopes and reflected an attitude that her coming out was beneficial in both a sports sense and an overall-society sense.

People e-mailed to say they were proud of Swoopes and/or that they were happy for her. Others said public visibility is still very important and very validating for gay people. Among these so-called "positive" e-mailers were both men and women, and a significant number identified themselves in the e-mail as either straight, gay or bisexual.

Some of those who identified as gay offered their life experiences and how they appreciated and respected Swoopes' honesty. Many of those who identified as straight talked about how they had gay friends, relatives or colleagues and felt empathy for them.

There were, of course, e-mailers who were unhappy with Swoopes' announcement from the perspective that their religious beliefs hold that homosexuality is wrong. I know nothing I could say would change that thinking, so there's no point in debating it here.

Nor am I going to ponder the topic that has seemed to be the most popular "spin-off" of Swoopes' announcement: How much more difficult it supposedly would be for a prominent gay male athlete to come forward, and when that might happen. Many of my colleagues across the country have weighed in on that, some with eloquence and insight. All I will say in this regard is that if anyone thinks it's "easy" for female athletes or coaches to come out, they are very mistaken.

After reading the e-mails I got, it struck me there were probably three big issues about the Swoopes story I didn't address in the previous column. That's what I'll talk about here:

"Why does the media write about Swoopes or anyone else being gay? I don't care."

Not to sound like too much of a smart-aleck, but it always amuses me that people will say how much they "don't care" about something, even though they took the time to write an e-mail about it.

I've heard "I don't care" and its twin "Nobody cares" more times than I can count in a career of writing about women's sports. In most cases, that means: "I'm annoyed by any acknowledgement of women's sports or any suggestion that other people might be interested."

Oh, they do care. They care that what they consider male "turf" is being infringed upon. But in the case of the Swoopes story, "I don't care" has a bit of a different "translation."

Some folks wrote, "I don't care about athletes' personal lives. Stick to sports."

Hmmm … I wrote a column at the All-Star Game about Swoopes and the impact her young son, Jordan, had on her still playing, how much his support and enthusiasm meant to her. Guess what? I didn't get a single e-mail saying, "Look, I don't care about Sheryl Swoopes' son. I'm not interested in her personal life. Stick to sports."

Every week in sports writing, there are thousands of stories written that mention things about athletes' and coaches' personal lives. Their spouses/whom they're dating, their kids, their friends, their diseases, their fears, their hopes, their dreams.

If all we did was "stick to sports," we could just run box scores.

People might say, "Yeah, but this was a whole story about one thing -- her relationship. I don't care about that."

I would respond that it's still newsworthy when a prominent figure in the sports world acknowledges homosexuality. I'd agree with anyone who'd say it will be a good thing for society if/when we get to the point where it isn't newsworthy. But I feel safe in saying we aren't there yet.

Then there is the complaint that any story about someone acknowledging homosexuality is, inherently, an obnoxious and unneeded declaration.

"Hey," some people wrote, "I don't feel it necessary to announce I'm heterosexual. I don't go around telling people what my wife/husband and I do in bed."

OK … at least on the planet I've lived on for 40 years, which I've always been led to believe is Earth, people don't have to announce, "I'm heterosexual," because it's generally presumed to be the case unless otherwise stated. Or, of course, unless they're worried someone has gotten the wrong idea (such as baseball player Mike Piazza's "I'm straight" announcement).

And people acknowledging they are gay doesn't mean they're describing bedroom activities anymore than someone saying they have a husband or wife does.

Does referencing your spouse mean you're talking about sex? I assume most people would say, "Of course not, you're just talking about your daily life." Ultimately, that's all Swoopes wants to do.

To that end, there were people who asked, "So why didn't she just live her life openly but not 'announce' anything?"

Maybe this was cathartic and necessary for Swoopes. And maybe she figured if she simply made references to her female partner in media interviews, it would have turned into a "coming out" story anyway. Which leads us to the next topic …

Is it troublesome that Swoopes' announcement that she was gay was "orchestrated" by a lesbian cruise line?

When I wrote the column about Swoopes, I had just been informed of the ESPN the Magazine story and that it would "break" on the Web site imminently. I was too dumb or too na´ve -- or both -- to immediately realize that story was part of a media blitz directed by Olivia cruises. That became obvious pretty quickly, though.

Plenty of folks, both gay and straight, might have rolled their eyes and were less than thrilled that Swoopes was talking for the first time about a deeply personal issue while Olivia was simultaneously selling her as the equivalent of a celebrity guest on the "Love Boat."

But, again, we live in a capitalistic society where a lot of people make money from their celebrity and don't think twice about it. And I suspect even savvy celebrities might sometimes feel like they lose a lot of control when an aggressive ad campaign swings into gear. But the bottom line is, if you sign up for such a deal, be prepared for some charges of "opportunism."

If Swoopes had been in a brief relationship with a woman, signed up with Olivia and had the multiple coming-out interviews, I could see cause for some skepticism in regard to what this was all about. But it's rather ridiculous to suggest that Swoopes got into a long-term relationship with a woman saying, "You know, in about seven or eight years, I'll be able to cash in on this."

Isn't it a problem that Alisa Scott was one of Swoopes' assistant coaches on the Houston Comets for several years while they were in a relationship?

First, food for thought: Isn't there potential for a problem when any one relationship on a team is "greater" than the overall relationship everyone is supposed to have with each other? Such as spouses or partners on a coaching staff, or a parent having his or her son/daughter as a fellow coach or as a player? The dynamics of any of these relationships conceivably could hurt team chemistry. But these situations exist in sports at all levels, and people seem to generally accept them and deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

That said, the issue of a romantic relationship/partnership between a supposed "superior" and "subordinate" is something that's generally frowned upon in all workplaces. Because it's perceived as a "power" issue, where one person could potentially be manipulating another. And/or because other subordinates might feel a peer is getting preferential treatment that may be unfair or harmful to others or to the overall welfare of the group.

The reality of the WNBA -- in my view -- is that assistant coaches have little "power," especially in regard to established superstars, who in some cases are older than the coaches are.

The idea that Scott had a lot of "power" -- let alone more than the player that fans jokingly (but not without a good bit of truth) refer to as "Her Majesty" -- is unlikely. However, anytime you're in a situation where there could be a perception that one person on a team is getting preferential treatment because of a relationship with someone in any kind of authority role, you can have problems.

It was a situation that shouldn't have gone on as long as it did. It's easy to say, from the outside, that Scott should have left her job right away and found another. But put yourself in her shoes: If no one was forcing you to quit, would you do it on your own in observance of an ethical code? Especially when it was about a relationship that you weren't even really publicly acknowledging?

And what should Scott have said in a job interview if she left Houston? Tell the truth about why and roll the dice on getting hired? Or just lie? (Yet another ethics question.)

Many suggest this was head coach Van Chancellor's call: He should have removed Scott from her coaching position as soon as he realized the truth of the relationship. But remember Scott played for and coached with Chancellor at Mississippi. If he fired Scott, he faced alienating both a longtime associate and his future Hall of Fame superstar.

I feel a little like a dog chasing its tail about all this. Chancellor looked the other way, as did, apparently, everyone else in the organization. Had it been a long-term heterosexual relationship that resulted in marriage, it might have been dealt with the same way right up until the marriage. And there might have been a lot of the same questions afterward.

So … the Swoopes story touches on many issues people deal with and think about every day. There's never going to be universal agreement on anything. I think I first fully realized this in kindergarten, when confronted with the baffling reality of a classmate who said she didn't like chocolate.

Surely, I thought, everyone agreed that chocolate, dogs, horses, cartoons and playing in the snow were the five greatest things in the entire world. I was so stunned that I still remember the kid's name and how I kept asking, "But you must like chocolate pudding, right? Especially the cooked kind? You have to like Hershey bars, don't you? What about brownies? Chocolate cake? Oreos? M&Ms? Milky Ways? Kit-Kats?"

Nope. But she really liked vanilla ice cream.

In the end, you can take Swoopes' story any way you choose to and have whatever opinion of it that you want. Be happy about it, touched by it, upset by it, contemptuous of it, curious about it or completely indifferent to it. But if it has prompted discussions about how we all perceive and deal with and accept each other, then it was a story worth telling.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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