Swoopes could open door for others to follow

It's a conversation I've had with folks many, many times over the years, as recently as a few days ago. The topic: When will women's basketball be able to deal even semi-honestly with the issue of homosexuality?

Usually, there has been some thread of optimism in the discussion that starts with, "Surely, pretty soon, some big star is finally going to say it: 'Look, this is ridiculous. I'm a good person, I'm in love, I'm really happy. What am I afraid of? Yes, I'm gay.'"

And now, finally, a player who has defined the past decade-plus of women's basketball -- not just a big star but one of the all-time greatest in the sport -- is stepping forward and saying just that.

Congratulations, Sheryl Swoopes.

Yes, it has been known for quite awhile to plenty of people who follow/cover women's hoops that Swoopes, of the Houston Comets, has been in a long-term relationship with a woman. This past summer, after the WNBA All-Star Game, a league beat writer suggested to me that Swoopes seemed very close to going public about it. Then, during the press conference when she received the 2005 regular-season MVP award in September, Swoopes said, "Scotty, thank you for being here, believing in me and having the faith and the confidence in me that I could get the job done."

I said to another reporter, "Sheryl is getting closer." The reporter replied, "Yeah, but that nickname is gender-ambiguous. She still hasn't said who 'Scotty' really is."

Well, now Swoopes has. It's her partner, a former standout college player in her own right, Alisa Scott, who also has been a college and pro coach. In a first-person story as told to ESPN The Magazine's LZ Granderson, Swoopes has explained her choice to reveal she's gay.

Swoopes is at a point in her life when she's tired of hiding and pretending. She knows who she is now and she's not afraid of it. At this moment, I imagine many people envy that.

Swoopes' story might be interesting fodder for a while in the mainstream sports media. Some of the thoughts and opinions from the press, blogs and message boards about Swoopes and the WNBA will be thought-provoking, compassionate and intelligent. Some will be ignorant, hateful, mind-numbingly immature and just plain silly.

Then sports columnists and talk-show hosts will move on. Women's basketball, pro and college, is still a blip in the general sports world. The World Series, the BCS, the NFL, the NBA … those things will still dominate, as they typically do.

The media outside sports could pick up on Swoopes' story, as well -- but, of course, they've already been there with Ellen and Rosie, etc. It's not new ground.

I don't want to spend a lot of time right now speculating about what impact Swoopes' story might have in a general sense or even generally in women's sports. Both are important topics, but here I want to focus on the impact it could have specifically on the women's basketball world. That could be widespread and lasting.

First, though, let's start with this. As Swoopes herself points out, there are plenty of heterosexual women in the sport who are very happy, unconflicted and quite sure they want just Brad Pitt and not Angelina Jolie or both. A lot of them are going to see the Swoopes story, roll their eyes and say, "Oh, please, isn't it hard enough already for me to get guys to ask me out? Do we have to talk about the 'gay thing' again?"

Sorry, but we do. Because it's so rarely been talked about honestly in this sport. People will say, "Oh, why is it important? I don't care. What difference does it make? I don't have any problems with it. It's not an issue."

You really believe that? OK … did you gasp when you saw the Swoopes story? I'd guess you did. Why? Because it is a big deal, and we do need to keep talking about it.

Certainly, the religious debate about homosexuality is not going away in our lifetimes; that's something Swoopes says she continues to deal with. And some people will read that Swoopes acknowledges she didn't always know she was gay -- she was married to a man -- and exclaim, "See! I knew it! It is a choice!"

However, Swoopes is relating her own personal experience, not trying to represent the universal gay or lesbian experience. Because there's no such thing. People come to their own understanding of their feelings in different ways and at different times in their lives. Many people are attracted to and fall in love with people of both sexes, and they might choose to define themselves based on whom they're with or not define themselves at all.

Some people know they're gay from their earliest consciousness. Maybe you knew when you couldn't concentrate on doing your Spirograph picture after your big sister's friend smiled at you when she walked into the house. Maybe you knew when a bunch of girls in your grade-school class were debating who was the cutest on the "Hardy Boys" TV show, and the answer in your head was "Nancy Drew."

Maybe you knew when you had your first conversation with a certain woman. Maybe you knew when you wanted a divorce. Maybe you still don't know.

I mentioned earlier that the media that regularly cover this sport did know about Swoopes. That's not in any way to suggest that we have some kind of widespread knowledge about who is and who isn't gay in women's hoops. That's still mostly the stuff of gossipy guesswork, and it's not really the sort of thing one spends time trying to report on.

However, you can't help but see things, overhear and make hypotheses. It's not so much prying into people's personal lives as just being a human observer. It's my experience in this sport that no journalist would out a coach or player against that person's will. In fact, most of us just go along with whatever image the coach or player wants presented, even when we suspect it's phony.

The thing about Swoopes in recent years was that, although she didn't officially come out until now, she didn't seem to be actively trying to hide the relationship or intentionally blur dots to keep observers from connecting them.

That has always gone on in women's sports, and in cynical, humorous fashion you can list various disguises: Throw 'em off by wearing a crucifix and talking a lot about Bible verses. Throw 'em off by wearing a dress and big earrings. Throw 'em off by getting married. Try to always appear as the stereotype of "straight." (Meanwhile, some straight women are saying, "Oh, great, now what do I have to do to make sure nobody thinks I'm gay?")

The sad truth is, many of those using the disguises haven't done so and still aren't doing so in a clearheaded, completely calculated way. They're trying to stay camouflaged because they're scared. Yes, still in 2005 -- despite "Queer as Folk," "The L-Word," "Will and Grace" and chicks regularly making out on reality-TV series -- most lesbians who play or coach in women's basketball are very afraid of being revealed as gay.

But they might not be hiding so much as just fitting in because they're trying to find themselves -- and because everybody else hides.

Without going into the entire history of women's hoops, gender roles and sex stereotypes -- good heavens, this column is going to be long enough already -- I'd like to reflect on the last 30 or so years. Title IX was signed into law in 1972. But it took a few more years for Title IX to be applied nationally in terms of actual sports opportunities for women in college.

So most collegiate women's basketball programs (as we know them today) began their documented history -- when game scores and stats were kept -- between 1972 and 1975.

The transition from the AIAW to NCAA governance of college women's sports took place in 1981-82, and that brought a different spotlight. For various reasons (see pro tennis and golf, for good examples) homosexuality in women's sports in general got caught in a new kind of glare in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. As the most media-covered women's collegiate sport, basketball had the most glare. Really, considering how slight coverage was -- and still is in a lot of places -- it wasn't that much glare. But when you're scared, even a little can seem blinding.

And when Pam Parsons, former women's hoops coach at Old Dominion and South Carolina, went to jail for perjury in 1984 after an ill-advised lawsuit against "Sports Illustrated" when the magazine outed her in 1982 … well, then a lot of folks were flat-out petrified, thinking, "What if someone outs me next?"

Some lesbian coaches left the sport. Some got married. Most just further wrapped themselves in the "cloak of the vague" that remains to this day. Publicly, many opt to be seen as sexless schoolmarm-types way too busy figuring out stuff like defensive schemes to have personal lives.

Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, television began to become a bigger factor in women's hoops. More glare. I sometimes refer to this as the "Easter Dress Period," because of the number of rumored-to-be-lesbian coaches who suddenly altered their wardrobes and started showing up on the sidelines in such flowery, bejeweled ensembles that they appeared to have been detoured from a five-state Southern Baptist revival.

These days, the sport has pretty much gotten away from that extreme. But I still don't know of any current Division I women's basketball or WNBA coach who has publicly come right out and said, "I'm gay."

So … if coaches, who are older adults, have been and still are this afraid or uncertain or confused or in denial or all of the above about the issue of homosexuality, what do you think it has been like -- and still is like -- for women's basketball players, who are younger and still trying to figure out so many things about themselves? They haven't exactly had many role models in the sport showing them how to live honestly and confidently as a lesbian, bisexual or "questioning" person.

And this brings us back to Swoopes, who became a college star in her two years at Texas Tech during 1991-93. That might not seem so long ago, but remember, you probably didn't even know what the Internet really was then. And in terms of homosexuality in mainstream culture then, let's recall that in 1991-92, Hollywood (which is supposedly just so utterly gay) gave us "Basic Instinct" -- no comment -- and "Fried Green Tomatoes," which took the passionately in-love lesbians of its source novel and turned them into "just good friends."

(I'll never forget standing in line outside the theater to see "Tomatoes" and hearing the conversation from a group behind me: "Are there lesbians in this movie?" "Oh, no, I heard they were lesbians only in the book.")

Swoopes originally went to the University of Texas but left there rather quickly and enrolled in South Plains Junior College in Levelland, Texas, close to her hometown of Brownfield. The story was that she was homesick. Other rumors went around, including one that now seems particularly ironic: that Swoopes was unnerved by the perceived openness of gay culture in Austin, Texas, and the Longhorn campus.

One thing for sure was that Swoopes was shy back then. She went to Texas Tech her junior year, and coach Marsha Sharp would laugh years later about how when the TV cameras came around for interviews, Swoopes would try to hide.

But when you record what remains the most amazing performance in women's NCAA Tournament history -- 47 points in the 1993 national-championship game -- you can't run from a high profile. Her first Olympic gold medal and the launch of the WNBA -- for which Swoopes was a pregnant poster girl, in another bit of irony -- came within four years after her Tech team's NCAA title. That meant Swoopes, unlike a lot of other past stars in the women's game, did not lose her profile.

I've said before -- and this has nothing to do with her personal life or the courage it's taking for her to come forward now -- that strictly on hoops terms, Swoopes is the best women's basketball player I have ever seen. At 34 years old this past season, she was still a dominant force, as her third WNBA MVP confirmed.

In addition, I recall chatting with a fan not long ago and saying I thought Swoopes had become the best spokeswoman in the WNBA. It was sweet and funny, actually, to think of Swoopes' running away from TV cameras many years ago and then see her confidently answering question after question whenever the media is around now.

Of course, she will face different kinds of questions from here on out. She'll get tired of them. She might at some point think, "Maybe I shouldn't have said anything." It's then that I hope Swoopes holds on to how much good she's accomplishing. When yet another reporter asks her about the "gay thing" next season, and she feels like saying, "Look, not again," she should remember that the next day, someone somewhere will read about her and say, "Wow, that's me" or "That's my sister" or "That's my son" or "That's my friend."

Her coming out obviously won't change women's basketball overnight. Hiding and disguises will continue. Many people will still be scared. But others won't be -- or at least not as much -- anymore. This is an important step in beginning to dismantle the fear.

Finally, there is the question of how Swoopes' story will be received in Lubbock, Texas, home of Texas Tech and some of the most loyal and knowledgeable women's basketball fans in the world. It's just as dumb to suggest that everyone in Lubbock has a problem with homosexuality as it is to say that everyone in New York City has no problem with it. However, Lubbock is a place one would describe as conservative, to use, admittedly, a stereotype.

Swoopes is a legend in Lubbock more than anywhere else; she brought the university national recognition and always will be one of the most important people in the school's history. Texas Tech fans genuinely love her, though some will feel very conflicted about her story.

But I think most of them, even if they don't understand or totally accept Swoopes' story, are people who believe we should live and let live. They might still vote for any and all measures to ban gay marriage, but they'd give Swoopes a sincere hug if they saw her.

I think Swoopes realizes all of this. She'll still run into some surprising reactions -- pleasant and unpleasant -- in the coming months and years. But I believe she has taken this on her shoulders because it will help her, help women's basketball and she's strong enough to handle it.

Perhaps for the first time in her life, in fact, she truly knows that.

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