Kate Fagan on what real progress looks like in sports
Bestselling author and LGBTQ advocate says she hopes for a day when she’s ‘not representative of anything’
It’s frequently said that sports is a reflection of society, but that cliché doesn’t often reflect reality — especially at the highest levels of athletics.
Case in point: According to a Gallup survey released last summer, more adult Americans than ever before identify as LGBTQ, with 5.6% of adults identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Consider that data, and then consider this: Across the entire NFL, among the 1,696 active players that make up the rosters of the league’s 32 franchises, only one of those players is openly gay.
In June, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib made history when he became the first active NFL player to announce that he is gay, doing so with an understated video he shared on Instagram. While Nassib’s announcement was hailed as a sign of progress, the fact that it took until 2021 for an NFL player to feel comfortable coming out to the world also shows just how slow progress has been in major American sports when it comes to changing cultural norms.
Kate Fagan knows all too well just how slow that progress has been. Before she was a New York Times-bestselling author and a columnist for ESPN, where she regularly appeared on its popular show “Around the Horn” weekday afternoons, Fagan was a scholarship basketball player at the University of Colorado Boulder. During those formative years, from her late teens into her early 20s, Fagan struggled with her own sexual identity and deep-rooted fears about coming out as gay to her teammates.
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Even in liberal Boulder, on a team coached by the legendary Ceal Barry, a lesbian who quietly kept her personal life separate from her professional one, Fagan found herself surrounded by teammates who were actively involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and, at times, openly expressed homophobic views.
She recounted that experience in her memoir, “The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led by Born-Again Christians.” Fagan went on to be a star for the often nationally ranked Buffs, where, among other accolades, she set a Big 12 record for consecutive free throws. But in her memoir, she reveals how close she came to quitting and how much she struggled with her mental health while disguising her true self.
Fagan will talk about those experiences and address mental health, gender equity in media and athletics and the challenges of growing up LGBTQ in sports during two nights of Eat Chat Parent events in Eagle County, first on Wednesday at Colorado Mountain College, then on Thursday at Eagle Valley High School or on Zoom.
Seventeen years removed from the crush of playing Division-I basketball, Fagan said there is a lot about sports that she still embraces and that still defines her. In every organization she’s ever worked for, whether it was her first newspaper job in a small rodeo town in Washington State all the way to her time at ESPN, Fagan said she’s always considered herself part of a team. She still embraces the values of hard work, not speaking ill of other teammates and being accountable.
But there are some other ingrained concepts from a life in sports that she’s challenged herself on as a result of her life experiences.
“I do think there’s something to be said for sports, allowing you to build a foundation of values,” Fagan said during a phone interview Tuesday. “And then there are other things, and this gets back to mental health and LGBT topics, where like: Do I think quitting is weakness always? Hmm, I don’t know about that. Do I think that pain is always part of growth? Sometimes, not always.”
The world is changing so quickly, especially for today’s youth; yet Fagan as an LGBTQ and mental health advocate said the glacial pace of change on those two issues within athletics is something worrisome.
Inside national sports media circles, there is an awareness, especially among those in the LGBTQ community, that there are likely dozens of closeted athletes in each men’s professional league.
Which inevitably leads to the question: What is holding those athletes back from sharing their authentic selves with the world?
“Why are we seven years removed from Michael Sam, and we still only have one player?” Fagan said. “It takes you down the road of like, ‘OK, what are the dynamics really at the professional level, and in sports, that makes it a more challenging space to be out?'”
Some of those dynamics were certainly brought into the spotlight when the private emails of Jon Gruden, Nassib’s coach on the Raiders, were revealed as a result of an NFL investigation into the Washington Football Team.
The New York Times, in its reporting, detailed a stream of vulgar emails in which the Raiders coach and the once-popular “Monday Night Football” commentator made homophobic, racist and misogynistic remarks.
“In 2021, if you just look at social media, or if you just look at the media in general, you would think, ‘Why would any football player or basketball player, why would anybody think that they couldn’t come out?'” Fagan said. “But that’s not an accurate reflection of what everyday Americans, what the general population, feels.”
While there has certainly been progress, she said the example of Gruden, who resigned last month as the scandal grew, is indicative of the undercurrents still at play in hyper-competitive spaces.
“If you’re taking your cues from the sports media world or just the media world about what’s not just acceptable but embraced, you’re going to get very different messaging than when you’re running in these powerful circles of the NFL,” she said. “There’s a lot of older generation people that grew up in the sports world where all of these things are still equated with like, you know, weakness and ostracism and all of that. And that hasn’t gone away.”
Of course, Fagan is representative of progress at work. She mentioned that she recently watched “Around the Horn” celebrate its 19th year on the air before mentioning off-hand that the original panelists on the first show were T.J. Simers, Woody Paige, Jay Mariotti, and Bob Ryan — four middle-aged white men.
Times have certainly changed when it comes to the makeup of talking heads and columnists opining about sports in America. And, yet, generally sports media tends to stop short too often after any modicum of progress is reached.
“Of course, representation matters, but it’s really important when it’s one step on a path toward representation not even being a word as opposed to the thing you see happen so often, which is when you have one of something, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m good, right?'” Fagan said. “I feel like sports media does this all of the time. It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, we don’t cover women’s sports, but hey, we talk about Serena Williams, so we’re covered.’ Well, you don’t follow women’s college basketball. ‘Yeah, but we had 2 minutes on UConn.’ It’s like, you always have the one that allows you cover for not actually progressing. And so that’s the next step to me is like, I don’t want and I don’t really think of myself as being like representative of anything.”
What: “A Conversation on Identity, Inclusion, & Diversity in Sports with Kate Fagan”
When: Thursday, Nov. 11, at Eagle Valley High School or Zoom
Times: Free dinner provided at 5:30 p.m.; presentation from 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.
Audience: For parents with teens
Child care: Free child care available, but reservations are required
Live Spanish interpretation will also be available
Register: Sign up at MountainYouth.org/eatchatparent