Sheryl Swoopes, Jennifer Azzi and the 1996 Team USA women’s basketball team are the subject of the fantastic new 30 For 30 on ESPN, “Dream On. | Image by Shelby Weldon

Years after the historic Olympic dream team and the birth of the WNBA, how has women’s basketball evolved its relationship with the LGBTQ community?

“I should have been on the team. If I’m really honest about it, I think I was cut from the ‘92 team because I was gay. Because I think there were rumors about me, and one of the coaches was close to a coach who was very, very anti-gay.”

Jennifer Azzi shared this heart-rending reflection on the culture of women’s basketball in the 1990s in an interview for the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary “Dream On,” which highlights never before seen archival footage of the 1996 Team USA women’s basketball team at the Atlanta Olympics, as well as interviews with the players looking back at that momentous era.

While we don’t see the same level of explicit homophobia in the WNBA today, to what extent is the culture change thanks to the sacrifices and work of veterans like Azzi and Sheryl Swoopes? And how much of it comes down to the vagaries of whether men in the executive suite believe they can profit off these players in spite of (or because of) the players’ sexuality?

In “Dream On,” Sheryl Swoopes, one of the first high-profile WNBA players to come out publicly, also shared her thoughts on the feminization of the team’s image back in ‘96, as the NBA set the tone for the league’s marketing efforts — a set of expectations with which players to this day continue to grapple.

“I think what the NBA was doing was saying, we know that we’re already gonna have the gay and lesbian community to come out and support. So what can we do differently to get more men to come out and watch?” Swoopes said, reflecting back on the marketing of the WNBA’s inaugural season. “So if we want to have more men come out to watch the games, then we need to find more players who look more feminine and who men may look at and say, ‘Oh, she’s attractive.’”

Coming off the collapses of previous women’s basketball leagues like the WBL and ABL, what was justified as a business decision to enforce this non-threatening, feminine, heterosexual image only contributed further to the marginalization of players already preoccupied with the idea that any wrong move they make could lead to the collapse of the nascent WNBA, which played its first season in the year following the success at the ‘96 Olympics.

Even today we see iterations of this narrative of self-sacrifice pushed in so many other leagues, about which sportswriter Lindsay Gibbs keenly observed, “the myth that women’s sports are in peril is perpetuated by the men in charge of them.”

“I never thought about coming out,” Azzi admitted. “I actually never thought about ever coming out, ever. And it was one of the toughest things I did, actually, to get back on a plane and go back to the trials in ‘96 after being cut in ‘92.

“I was afraid that I would be seen differently and maybe wouldn’t be as marketable, or that companies wouldn’t wanna sponsor our team.”

Jennifer Azzi was my teammate and roommate the year with the National Team. I had no idea she was gay. Athletes weren’t “out” then. We live in a much better and more accepting world now. #DreamOn

— Rebecca Lobo (@RebeccaLobo) June 16, 2022

Swoopes was also greatly influenced by what coming out might mean for not only her own career, but also for consumers to associate the ‘product’ of women’s basketball with queerness

“We have a great thing going right now, and if I do come out and say, ‘hey, I’m gay, I’m a lesbian’ – How would Nike feel?” She asks in ‘Dream On.’ “How would Adidas feel? How would Reebok feel?”

For her part, Swoopes finally did come out in 2005, almost a decade after she was selected in the WNBA’s inaugural draft.

In the years since then, the culture has changed dramatically, now one of the most pro-gay spaces in the world of professional sports. At the start of this year’s season, roughly 1 in 5 of the players were publicly out, and the league has taken enormous strides in recognizing its stalwart LGBTQ fans as foundational to its rising popularity and viewership.

The 1996 team was given their flowers, literally, in 2021 at the WNBA All Star game. The current Team USA squad honored their predecessors, the two teams together bookending the nation’s seven consecutive Olympic gold-medal streak.

The sacrifices that Swoopes and Azzi made concealing their sexuality to support an investment in the women’s game were unmistakeable. No players felt able to be publicly out at the time of their historic Olympic success in ‘96, and last year almost half of the current squad (five of 12) were out when they clinched the gold medal in Tokyo.

Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images
Sue Bird of the USA Basketball Womens National Team gives flowers to Jennifer Azzi of the 1996 United States Olympic Team during the AT&T WNBA All-Star Game on July 14, 2021

While so much has changed in the nearly three decades since the historic dream team of ‘96, the precarious material conditions that LGBTQ athletes are forced to maneuver in women’s sports still persist in many ways. Chief among these considerations is the economic reality of playing their sport, particularly in a league where only 14 players are currently salaried at $200,000 or more, compared to their NBA counterparts who are buoyed by multimillion-dollar contracts.

In the WNBA, these comparatively meager payouts can be supplemented with performance bonuses, marketing agreements (more on that later), and the new revenue sharing system negotiated by the WNBPA.

As long as an athlete’s economic stability is subject to the whims of coaching strategy and injury — the average WNBA career spans only 3.5 years, after all — and as long as the WNBA remains constricted to only 144 playing spots while the number of professional caliber women’s players continues to grow, any decisions a player might make to share or withhold details about their personal life may be in part subordinated to their utility in their team’s capacity to win games.

“I’ve had conversations with players who are currently in the league, and I have said to them, listen: you’re a great player, right? You’re at the peak of your career — or the beginning of your career,” Swoopes said in a 2020 interview with Fox Soul. “You are doing a lot for the league right now, so the league is going to embrace you being who you are.

“As you get towards the end of your career and you’re no longer that player that you were in the beginning, they’re not going to embrace you for being who you are. You’re going to be on your own.”

Swoopes may be alluding in part to the more recent marketing phenomenon of “rainbow capitalism” and the means by which LGBTQ identities can be not only accepted by society but used as an opportunity for branding in the pursuit of profit.

The flip side of turning one’s sexuality into a brand is of course the reduction of complicated and immensely personal experiences into something often sanitized in the pursuit of the “inspirational” with all the edges sanded down. But for journeyman athletes with a relatively short window to maximize their earnings on the court, it’s good work if you can get it.

While finances may play a key role in the WNBA’s pivot to embracing its LGBTQ players and lucrative fan bases, there are countless other factors that may go into the decision to come out publicly in today’s game.

Azzi didn’t come out until 2016, 20 years removed from the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ethos of 1996, having taken inspiration from Golden State Warriors CEO Rick Welts, the first prominent US sports executive to come out as openly gay.

Candace Parker, a true superstar of the game, didn’t come out publicly until 2021 — 13 years after her WNBA debut.

There are countless reasons why Parker and others like her still choose to be strategic about when they come out and who they come out to, in spite of the sea change of acceptance among the players themselves.

Photo by Rick Stewart/Allsport/Getty Images
From left, Teresa Edwards, Dawn Staley, Ruthie Bolton, Sheryl Swoopes, Jennifer Azzi and Lisa Leslie of the USA stand on the podium after winning the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

One shift that may prove valuable to organically holding space for LGBTQ players is that WNBA alumni from the early years of the league are now more than experienced enough to be taking on coaching positions. As reported earlier in 2022, 50% of WNBA head coaches are former players, and many others have worked their way into management and ownership roles.

As more athletes make the transition from the court to leadership ranks, we’re more likely to see out players represented among them who are able to use their own experiences to better inform and cultivate safe, supportive environments for future generations.

Another key piece is the strengthening of the WNBA Players Assn., with voices such as Layshia Clarendon and Sue Bird in a position to advocate on behalf of the rights of the union’s LGBTQ members when negotiating on things like healthcare and other vital details in the league’s collective bargaining agreements.

“From the beginning I was like, we better be queer-inclusive on this,” Clarendon said in 2020 after the CBA was finalized. “Does it cover this type of mom or does it cover only the person who carried the child, not if the person wasn’t going to carry? All those things from the very beginning, I’m trying to really make sure we’re making it as inclusive as possible for all types of working moms in this league.”

Ultimately, empowering the players to make these decisions for themselves and guide the direction of the league they carry is the best way to honor the sacrifices and struggles of WNBA elders like Swoopes and Azzi.

Continued progress is not a given, as we can feel acutely amid the epidemic of regressive legislation targeting the rights of the LGBTQ community, particularly trans athletes.

Rather than leaving it to the vagaries of the marketplace and whether sports CEOs think it’s more profitable to be an ally or a bystander, the current generation of player leadership is working to ensure that others coming up aren’t burdened with the same expectations of sacrifice in order to just play ball.