'Progress is progress': The News' Tony Paul sounds off on LGBTQ+ issues in sports roundtable

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

June is Pride Month and The Athletic recently hosted a roundtable of out sports-media members to discuss LGBTQ+ issues in the sports world and beyond.

Detroit News sportswriter Tony Paul, who came out publicly in 2015, was among those taking part in the seven-person panel, along with The Athletic's Steve Buckley, The Washington Post's Chuck Culpepper, Los Angeles freelance writer Dave Doyle, the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Chris Hine, freelance photographer and voiceover talent Esther Lin and NBC Sports and Fox Sports play-by-play announcer Kate Scott.

Here's the complete roundtable (subscriber content), as well as one from 2017. Both were hosted by sportswriter Richard Deitsch, who was at Sports Illustrated in 2017 and now is at The Athletic.

The Arizona Diamondbacks' Ildemaro Vargas wears rainbow eye tape on Pride Night earlier this month.

Here's Paul's commentary from this year's roundtable:

How would you assess the current coverage of LGBTQ+ athletes and how can mainstream shops do a better job, more consistently, of covering LGBTQ+ athletes? 

Coverage is lacking, though it’s definitely gotten better over the years. Certain niche sites, like Outsports, do a great job, but it’s pretty remarkable that mainstream sites don’t follow up on Outsports stories when they lend themselves to a local angle. Staffing is one problem. Covering a bunch of different beats myself, I understand there’s often just not enough bodies to cover everything (and that’s not going to get any better). But the stories are there to be done, and there’s an audience for them. Prioritizing is key here. Maybe a few less gamers and notebooks, and a few more outside-the-box features is the way to go.

I asked each of you this four years ago: “Do you think viewers/listeners/readers care that you’re gay, positive or negative, and why?” What is your opinion today?

I’m not sure readers care that much that I’m gay, and I’m not sure the traditional reader — the reader who just devours the stories I write, and might not even notice the byline — actually knows. But the social-media crowd does, in fact, seem interested and appreciative that I’m willing to be out, honest and willing to address gay issues when it comes to sports, or even when it comes to politics (and, boy, do my bosses love it when I talk politics, like a golfer loves a buried lie in the bunker). I’ve received lots of positive interaction over the years, particularly from followers who have gay children or family members, some of whom were early in the stages of coming to terms with that and told me that I had helped them. That feels good.

How newsworthy is it in 2021 if a current professional athlete comes out during his or her career?

Some readers love to say, “Who cares,” whenever a story about an athlete coming out is written or reported. I always find that response hilarious since, by making the comment, there’s a good chance you read the story and, thus, do actually care. The truth is, a lot of people care. The metrics on such stories prove that. So an athlete coming out remains very newsworthy and will for quite some time, given so few professional athletes have come out, particularly before retirement. It’d be great if we get to the point where it barely registers as a blip, but we’re not there, not even close, and, sadly, we won’t be there anytime soon.

What has been your experience on social media since the first panel came out?

Same as before, honestly. I still don’t have a blue checkmark.

Tony Paul joined The News in the summer of 2006.

Four years ago I asked if you feel threatened by the current political climate? How do you feel today?

Four years ago, sure. I mean, on Day 1 of the previous administration, every mention of LGBTQ+ issues was stripped off the White House official website. Today, much less so, even though the previous administration’s (Supreme Court) overhaul is concerning. We now have a president who supports equality, and the needle is really shifting for the gay-rights movement. According to a new Gallup poll, 70% of Americans now support gay marriage, and for the first time, a majority of Republicans now support gay marriage. Even in Michigan, the Republican-led state Senate just officially recognized June as LGBTQ Pride Month for the first time. Progress is progress, and there’s been a lot of it in the last several years. Then again, as I write this, I’m reminded that it’s the fifth anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub massacre. There’s still so much hate.

On the WNBA and NWSL side, we’ve seen some of their biggest stars come out, be embraced, be themselves and thrive. In the major men’s pro sports in this country, do you think we will see a big star come out in the near future? And if not, why not?

I think it’s inevitable that a major men’s star comes out at some point, though I probably said the same thing when you asked us this question four years ago, and it hasn’t happened yet. It’s going to take the right person to do it — a person who is wholly comfortable in his own skin (and willing to put his truth before his wallet). That gay male athlete is, no doubt, out there right now, wrestling with whether to do it, or if so, when. A progressive and major sponsor could help this process along, too. Take Nike, for instance. Its line of #BeTrue gear is cool and refreshing, but would Nike give a $10-million-a-year endorsement deal to an out male athlete? Ralph Lauren was super quick to dump Justin Thomas after his unfortunate slur, but would Ralph Lauren invest in an out male athlete? Until that issue is resolved, it may take a while. Because, as we know, in all walks of life, money talks.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984