Calling life in the closet "miserable," three-time Olympic gold medalist and reigning WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes announced she is gay in an exclusive interview in the current issue of ESPN The Magazine.
"My reason for coming out isn't to be some sort of hero," Swoopes, a forward with the Houston Comets, says in the article. "I'm just at a point in my life where I'm tired of having to pretend to be somebody I'm not. I'm tired of having to hide my feelings about the person I care about. About the person I love.
"Male athletes of my caliber probably feel like they have a lot more to lose than gain [by coming out]. I don't agree with that. To me, the most important thing is happiness."
Swoopes, 34, is the most recognizable athlete, male or female, to come out in a team sport. Former WNBA player Michele Van Gorp, who played for the Minnesota Lynx, publicly acknowledged she is a lesbian in July 2004. Before Van Gorp, former Liberty player Sue Wicks had been the only member of a female professional team to publicly come out while still playing. Previously, Swoopes has said she plans to continue her career.
Former NFL defensive tackle Esera Tuaolo and MLB outfielder Billy Bean made headlines when they revealed they were gay, but both were retired when they made their announcements and neither had a career that comes close to Swoopes.
After being named NJCAA Player of the Year while at South Plains Junior College in 1991, Swoopes transferred to Texas Tech and two years later scored a NCAA title game-record 47 points in leading the Lady Raiders to the national championship. Swoopes was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player to go along with her national player of the year award. In 1994 she won gold at the Goodwill Games, and, in 1996, was a member of the Olympic gold medal-winning team that became the building block for the WNBA.
Since then, she has won two more Olympic gold medals, four WNBA championships and three regular-season MVP accolades, including this past summer. Swoopes, a five-time All-WNBA First Team honoree who was the All-Star MVP this past season, is also the first female athlete to have a shoe named after her, Nike's Air Swoopes.
"Some people might say my coming out after just winning the MVP award is heroic, and I understand that," she says. "And I know there are going to be some negative things said, too. But it doesn't change who I am. I can't help who I fall in love with. No one can."
In the article, Swoopes goes on to talk about her three-year marriage, her 8-year-old son, Jordan, and life with her partner, former Old Dominion basketball coach Alisa Scott.
"Discovering I'm gay just sort of happened much later in life," Swoopes says. "Being intimate with [Alisa] or any other woman never entered my mind. At the same time, I'm a firm believer that when you fall in love with somebody, you can't control that."
The news could be particularly perplexing for the WNBA, which has struggled to both recognize the homosexual element connected to its league and grow its fan base. Ironically, in its infancy, the WNBA marketed a pregnant, married Swoopes to put a heterosexual face on its promotional campaign. Now the league, which will play its 10th season next summer, has to decide what to do now that one of its best and most recognizable players has announced she's gay.
"The talk about the WNBA being full of lesbians is not true," Swoopes says. "There are as many straight women in the league as there are gay. What really irritates me is when people talk about football, baseball and the NBA, you don't hear all of this talk about the gay guys playing. But when you talk about the WNBA, then it becomes an issue. Sexuality and gender don't change anyone's performance on the court."