In the world of sports, vulnerability is rare.
Inviting the public eye into a player's personal life is no easy feat, especially so in a career which requires fastidious defense on – and often off – the playing field. Yet, 19 year-old Nashville Predators prospect player Luke Prokop defied the odds last month by coming out as the first openly gay player signed to a National Hockey League (NHL) team. The Edmonton-native signed a three-year, entry-level contract with Nashville on December 9th, making him the first openly gay player under contract in the league. After playing the past four seasons with Calgary of the Western Hockey League (in which Prokop scored six points in 15 games), the move made history, as support pours in from many corners of the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman responded to Prokop's announcement this week:
"People, unless they can be their authentic true selves, can't be the best they can be. Anybody who is connected to the NHL, whether it's front office, whether it's coaching and player development, whether it's players, we want everybody to know that whoever you are, you have a place in our family."
Prokop's move comes at a time of increased visibility within the world of sports. On July 23, the opening ceremony of the Olympics will feature at least 163 out players, a number that has doubled since 2016's Rio events. And, just last month, NFL player Carl Nassib became the first active player in the league to come out as gay. Both Prokop and Nassib made the announcement over Instagram, a testament to the power of social media platforms as a tool for visibility.
While both players continue to reap thousands of comments of support and well-wishes, other actively out athletes have lived a different story. Michael Sam, for one, made history as the first drafted NFL athlete to come out in 2014. Yet, Sam's experience as a trailblazer for the community wasn't wholly encouraged. The St. Louis Rams draft-pick faced backlash on Twitter, as well as inappropriately pointed questions about his sexuality during interviews and other public events. Ultimately, too, Sam did not make the final cut for the St. Louis Rams.
For openly gay or queer athletes, such is the reality. Social support, while widespread and encouraging, can often fall short in the professional sphere. Players such as Sam – and even his predecessor, David Kopay, who came out years after retiring as an NFL athlete – understand that oftentimes, their strides to encourage proud expressions of gender identity are those which pave the path for change within their sport. Until then, we can thank athletes like Prokop and Nassib for their bravery along the way. Read Luke Prokop's coming out remarks here.