Despite the increasing visibility of LGBT athletes in recent years, a new documentary shows how and why it’s still an uphill battle for openly gay figures in professional sports.
“Alone in the Game,” which premiered on AT&T’s Audience Network June 28, follows a group of LGBTQ athletes from some of the biggest sports franchises, including the NFL, NBA and NCAA, to explore the struggles and hard choices they face from the professional level all the way down to high-school sports. The subjects share their personal stories of trying to compete as openly gay athletes or living as closeted players in fear of what coming out would do to their careers.
Two athletes featured in the documentary know the latter crucible well. College basketball players Haley Videckis and Layana White were both recruited for Pepperdine University’s women’s basketball team, where they became a couple. Pepperdine is a Christian university, and the pair kept their relationship and sexuality a secret. That didn’t last amid the university’s antigay environment and a witch-hunt-like atmosphere to root out gay players. Once outed, Videckis and White faced harassment and intimidation not only from the athletic department but also the academic side. The couple switched schools and filed a lawsuit against Pepperdine for antigay discrimination.
A jury ultimately ruled against them last summer.
Videckis and White said they hoped that including their story in the documentary would help out athletes fight for their right to compete as openly gay individuals.
“There’s a very large number of athletes who are playing in both high-school and college sports and aren’t out,” Videckis said. “I think the lack of visibility creates a lack of protection at the policy level in college sports and the NCAA. I think we need to start a movement and raise awareness of the difficulties that athletes are facing because of a lack of protections. We hope this documentary can show the reality of what athletes are facing on a day-to-day basis.”
When asked if the resistance to openly gay athletes comes more from the organizations that run these teams or from their fellow players and the fans, White said that antigay sentiments are often systemic.
“I think it’s everything,” she added. “It’s also the fans and the institutions. When it comes to fans and recruitment, there’s a taboo in women’s basketball. There are female coaches who are gay but they’re not out, and that just shows you there’s a huge problem. It’s definitely coming from everything. Even at the top, there are coaches that aren’t out and you have to ask why. The issue is masculinity in sports and the perception of women in sports. Sex sells — and that’s how they judge women on teams: ‘Oh, she is too masculine. What is she wearing when she is not on the court?’ It’s things like that that women struggle with.”
Videckis and White relocated to USC after they left Pepperdine, which they say greatly improved their athletic and academic lives. They plan to use their experiences to help athletes in similar situations.
“At USC, we were open about our relationship and it changed the way we were able to interact with professors and within our class,” Videckis said.
“We’re going to start an organization for women in sports and LGBT issues,” White added. “USC really taught us a lot. We did really well there. We got almost a 4.0. They really inspired us to get into law and policy change. This lawsuit is what got us involved in wanting to do policy work.”
Videckis said that losing their case didn’t take away from what the two were able to accomplish in the process of trying to pursue justice.
“We did receive a landmark ruling for our case, and that is something that still stands to this day as a precedent that many people are relying on, even at the Supreme Court,” Videckis said. “It goes to the point that coming out can inspire change and inspire people to speak up: At one time Pepperdine was discriminatory.”
Today, Videckis and White are inspirations for the out college athletes who come after them, but the two credited activists and leaders with supporting and guiding them while they challenged Pepperdine.
“A year after we filed the suit, we met [national LGBTQ and
athletics educator activist] Pat Griffin and she’s a great leader, especially for women,” White said. “She supported us.”
Griffin and Helen Carroll, of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, “wrote an incredible handbook for LGBT athletes called ‘The Champions of Respect,’ Videckis said. “From the moment we met them and until we went to trial, they have been incredibly supportive and really showed us how to use our voices as women. And really, although we were plaintiffs, we were defending ourselves. They were incredibly inspirational and I don’t know how we would have gotten through it without them.”
Even with more sports figures coming out, the path to equality for openly gay athletes remanins a long one, especially at a time when even athletes’ words get a high level of media and political scrutiny.
“With the political climate right now, there is a huge effect,” White said of sports figures speaking out. “There should be a lot more professional athletes coming out. Even with what’s going on with the NFL, the political climate is affecting the fans and the way they see our community. Hopefully after this film comes out, that will change and maybe more professional athletes will come out after seeing this film.”
“There were no openly gay people at Pepperdine and many girls on the team were closeted,” Videckis said. “Once we filed our lawsuit, almost everyone came out on the team. Even coaches came out. It was a 180-degree flip in the culture and the inclusiveness in the LGBT community. Pepperdine even put in an LGBT club for the first time in decades, and put in a diversity board in the athletic department. When people speak out about injustices and express honestly where there needs to be change and protection, it really can only inspire people to put those protections in.”
For more information on “Alone in the Game,” visit http://start.att.net/exclusive/audience/alone-in-the-game-documentary.