For Closeted Gay Athletes, Endorsement Fears Persist

Cork, Ireland
Cork, Ireland

In the wake of Manny Pacquiao's disparaging comments about gays and lesbians during a recent television interview, Nike stopped selling all of its Pacquiao-branded merchandise and terminated the boxer's endorsement contract. The move, which earned widespread praise from LGBT activists and personalities, showed that Nike will not tolerate discrimination against the LGBT community. It's a decision that even Pacquiao's promoter, Bob Arum, agrees with. "Why would [Nike] want to offend the gay and lesbian community?" said Arum, who has represented the Pilipino boxer-turned-politician since 2005. "They sell product to everyone."

There is a fear among gay professional athletes, however, that some sponsors' support of the LGBT community may not be as reliable.

Gus Kenworthy, a 24-year-old Olympic freestyle skier, publicly revealed his sexuality in the October 2015 edition of ESPN The Magazine. He returned from Sochi with a silver medal, corporate sponsorships, and newfound fame, due in part to his efforts to rescue five stray dogs from the Russian city's streets. Kenworthy secretly worried, though, that coming out would leave him with nothing more than "a heavy piece of silver."

"I was kind of in this in-between where I wasn't ready to go forward with the authentic me and be who I am," he told ESPN. "For the longest time I didn't think I was going to tell anybody. I was so scared of what people would think."

Kenworthy expressed fear that coming out would carry a serious financial risk, not just a personal one. In his sport, "everyone drives the same type of car and listens to the same music," said Kenworthy, who relies on corporate sponsorships like Nike and GoPro for about 80% of his income. "The industry isn't the most embracing of someone who's different. I'm nervous about that."

"I didn't want to do something that would tarnish my image," he would later tell Rolling Stone, which refers to him as the first openly gay action-sports star. "Maybe my sponsors wouldn't want to put my face on something."

Out soccer star Megan Rapinoe, a member of the 2015 World Cup champion U.S. women's soccer team, says that many gay athletes share Kenworthy's fear. "It is an issue, definitely," Rapinoe told ESPN The Magazine as part of a special report on coming out in the post-acceptance era. "Some athletes have this image to uphold and may feel like sponsors won't want them if they're gay. I hope that would never go through [sponsors'] minds, but I think it does."

"Everywhere I look someone is getting a deal and on a commercial and sponsored by something, which is amazing," Rapinoe added. "But with that comes the pressure of looking a certain way and having a certain message. Maybe they wouldn't discriminate, but you don't know that for sure if you're a player and unsure whether to come out. Otherwise, why wouldn't more people come out?"

Fortunately for Rapinoe, Nike is one of her backers, and Nike's LGBT-friendly image goes far beyond just dropping the contracts of anti-gay athletes like Pacquiao. In addition to sponsoring other out professional athletes like Kenworthy, the NBA's Jason Collins, and the WNBA's Brittney Griner, the company earned a perfect rating in the Human Rights Campaign's (HRC's) Corporate Equality Index, and hosted the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Sports Summit in 2012. At the summit, USC marketing professor Ira Kalb affirmed that Nike's show of support has financial benefits for the company as well, stating that the LGBT community "is very loyal, they buy products from companies with equal opportunity in the workplace, and they pay attention to the news."

Adidas, which also earned a perfect score in HRC's equality index, has taken the sponsorship of gay athletes one step further. Stating that diversity is a "central part of the Adidas Group philosophy," the sportswear giant recently announced that it had amended its endorsement contract to ensure against cancelations or changes should an athlete come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. "The Group has reached a level of its evolution that cannot be ignored," wrote Norbert Teston, a leader of the company's LGBT employee resource division. "It continues to grow and promote diversity and inclusion values internally and externally."

Since coming out, Rapinoe and Kenworthy have taken personal steps forward as well. Besides retaining their high-profile endorsements, they've become willing role models for the LGBT athlete community. Rapinoe is now an ambassador for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization that focuses on ending homophobia and transphobia in sports. For Kenworthy, the new role is a responsibility he similarly embraces, and he tries to answer everyone who reaches out to him. "I struggled for a long time," he explained to Rolling Stone in a follow-up article, "and if I had someone to look up to who had broken through, it would have been great."

While the cases of Rapinoe and Kenworthy have proven the viability of high-profile endorsements for LGBT athletes -- their sponsors have demonstrated their faithfulness in a profound way -- a quiet yet persistent fear remains among the gay athlete community that other companies may not be so supportive. This may partly account for why there are currently no out players at the highest level of America's "big four" professional leagues (the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB), and so few elsewhere. But with companies like Adidas and Nike helping to alleviate the financial risk of coming out, and athletes like Rapinoe and Kenworthy leading the way, professional gay sports figures may start to feel more comfortable stepping out of the shadows and into the national spotlight.