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The new documentary Alone in the Game presents several eye-opening stories and statistics about LGBTQ athletes and homophobia in sports. However, there’s one stunning stat that probably won’t come as a surprise to most sports fans. Of the 4,696 athletes on the active rosters of teams in the five major North American professional sports leagues — the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and MLS — only one publicly identifies as LGBTQ. Of course, that doesn’t mean that none of the other athletes are gay.
“Of the big five? All of them have current LGBT athletes playing at the elite level that are in the closet,” says David McFarland, the film’s creator and executive producer. “So any one of them that has an athlete that comes out, will represent a major change in this country.”
McFarland’s passion for promoting greater LGBTQ visibility in sport was borne from personal experience. A former elite NCAA Division I swimmer, he competed at the national level, and although he now identifies as “a very proud gay man,” at the time, he says, “I was closeted.”
“We need LGBT athletes to be out so young people across this country, when they look out on the playing field and courts of America, they can identify with others like them,” he says. “Today they don’t see that in professional male sports. And they see it rarely in collegiate sports, as well as high school sports. And that’s both for men and women. So if we don’t see ourselves on the playing fields of America, we feel like we don’t belong.”
The documentary, co-directed by Natalie Metzger and Michael Rohrbaugh, captures the depth of that struggle to belong in the stories of young LGBTQ athletes like trans high school wrestler Trevor Betts, and gay Division I football player Riley Tindol, who discusses his attempts at suicide.
The film also addresses systemic issues in league and team front offices via interviews with leading sports figures, from NBA commissioner Adam Silver, to out ex-MLS star Robbie Rogers. McFarland hopes the film can do more than just provoke conversation about change.
“There’s a lot of talk about inclusion, diversity, and support for LGBT athletes,” he says. “But what we still see today, in sport, is the lack of equality, the lack of respect, the lack of diversity, and the lack of inclusion, at all levels. Without [that], it’s really gonna be impossible to achieve and break through this barrier. So those in leadership positions, when that moment comes, really need to step up to the plate.”
Alone in the Game is not rated, and premieres on AT&T Audience Network and DIRECTV on Thursday, June 28, at 8 p.m.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 7/2 to reflect MLS player Collin Martin coming out as gay. Read his announcement here.
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