Outsports founders on creating space for LGBTQ voices in sports media

Outsports

Cyd Zeigler, Jim Buzinski and some of the athletes who have come out on Outsports, at the 2014 Nike LGBT Sports Summit. (Courtesy Outsports)

TORONTO — You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who could speak with more authority on the evolution of the sports world’s engagement with the LGBTQ community than Jim Buzinski and Cyd Zeigler.

For the past 21 years, the pair have chronicled that progression in daily detail at Outsports.com, an outlet focused on covering the finer points of that engagement.

In those two decades, they’ve seen the media landscape and its embrace of diverse experiences change significantly, they say — back when they posted their very first story in November 1999, it was barren as could be.

“It was a desert,” says Buzinski. “It was an issue that was touched on very rarely in mainstream media, but also very rarely in the LGBTQ media — we had editors of gay magazines and websites tell us they didn’t know anything about sports, so this was a big void that was being filled.”

The first steps towards the site’s founding came, aptly, during a football game.

“We met playing flag football in a gay flag football league in Los Angeles,” Buzinski recalls. “We bonded over football, and we went to Cape Cod on vacation in the summer of ’99 — Cyd had this idea: ‘Why don’t we do something for this thing called the Internet?’”

Sports seemed the natural launching point given Buzinski and Zeigler’s shared interest, but the choice also came down to an understanding that there must be others out in the vast expanse of Internet seeking the same thing they were.

“We suspected there were a lot more — especially at the time — gay men who liked sports,” Buzinski says. “On our own, we just created this webpage in November and just started writing about the NFL, kind of haphazardly. There was no plan to it.

“Then we immediately started getting feedback from people who stumbled across us or they read about us somewhere. And it kind of just took off from there.”

The lack of existing coverage allowed room for Outsports to find its footing and grow naturally. Starting out with a focus on the fans’ perspective of the wider world of professional sports, the duo pivoted over time to covering the LGBTQ presence in sports itself. In 2013, after nearly a decade and a half of running the site independently, Outsports was acquired by Vox Media to be part of the SBNation family. Last year, the co-founders brought Dawn Ennis on board as managing editor, along with a team of contributors.

And while the Outsports world around Buzinski and Zeigler has grown, so too have the co-founders themselves.

“I think, frankly, Outsports’ perspective on diversity and inclusion changed,” says Zeigler. “(Initially), it was two white guys writing about sports…. Now we have trans writers and people of colour and women writing for us, and I think that’s just a part of the reality of sports today.”

The site has earned six GLAAD Media Award nominations over their lengthy run — the most recent being a 2020 Outstanding Digital Journalism Article nomination for Zeigler and Ennis’ series on transgender athletes in women’s sports — along with four awards from NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists.

But after two decades of work on a beat now getting long-overdue attention, Buzinski and Zeigler say that while the overall coverage has certainly grown, they still see holes in how LGBTQ stories tend to be told.

“There’s a lot more out athletes who have made names of themselves in the media — people like Megan Rapinoe, Adam Rippon or Gus Kenworthy — so … the media are collectively much more aware of LGBTQ people in sports,” Buzinski says. “But also, at some level, I think they get a little bit bored of it if there’s not a big name coming out.”

“If you don’t talk about the incredible athletes in high school and college, you’re missing the story,” adds Zeigler. “The real change is not happening in the NFL or the NHL — it’s happening in the high schools and colleges around America, where lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans athletes are coming out and their teammates and their coaches are totally cool with it. Unfortunately, that story isn’t being told enough.”

That belief in the importance of telling stories of athletes throughout all levels of sport has manifested in one of the most impactful aspects of Outsports’ current work — the website’s Coming Out Stories. The section features essays on life-altering moments for LGBTQ members of the sports world, often penned by the athletes themselves.

In 2014, Canadian Olympian Charline Labonté penned her coming-out story for the section, writing of her experience in Sochi in the wake of Russia passing an anti-LGBTQ law ahead of the Olympics. A recent piece from tennis pro Jeremy Sonkin delved into his battles with homophobia and racism.

Beyond those stories is a seemingly endless list of others. Looking back, one in particular comes to mind for Buzinski.

“One that stands out to me in terms of the big impact it had was one we did on a West Virginia soccer player dancing at the prom with his boyfriend as his coming out,” he says of Michael Martin, an all-state goalkeeper, who also wrote his piece for the site in 2014.

“You think of West Virginia, a very Republican red state, you would think it’s impossible to be out in West Virginia. And he was out openly, and it was not an issue. He got so much attention for his story that it wound up as kind of one of those things that went viral. To me it stood out because it really showed just the power of him being literally who he was — he wasn’t embellishing his story.

“He was a soccer player in West Virginia who was gay and he danced with his boyfriend at the prom. And the story just went kind of crazy. I think that to me was a reflection of the power of visibility.”

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With the COVID-19 pandemic ushering in the Zoom era of sports media, Outsports has delved into video conversations of their own, hosting a series of webinars that tie discussions of LGBTQ figures in sports to larger, ongoing conversations of inclusion and social justice.

The most recent featured a discussion on how the major North American sports can build stronger connections to the LGBTQ community, featuring representatives from the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers, NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and NBA’s Sacramento Kings. Another featured former track athletes Justin Rabon and Kaitlyn Long discussing their experiences as Black, LGBTQ athletes in Minneapolis in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

“We’re going to continue doing these educational pieces to try to help people across the sports world make their sports space feel more inclusive,” Zeigler says.

There’s an important nuance in that statement, he adds, pointing to the gap between what sports are and what they appear to be.

“They are [inclusive], but they don’t feel like it,” he says. “When people come out, they experience the inclusive nature of sports. But until they come out, it just doesn’t feel like it’s very inclusive most of the time. That’s kind of the dynamic that we’re talking about.”

Homophobic language in the locker room is among the key obstacles barring sports from seeming as inclusive as they may well be. Many of the athletes Buzinski’s spoken to over the years mentioned feeling resistant to coming out because of what they’d regularly heard in that environment, he says.

“While it’s important for people to come out, it’s also important for people in leadership positions — in colleges, universities, and on teams; coaches, general managers — to make sure that this kind of language isn’t tolerated,” he adds. “It’s not like it’s simply incumbent upon the athletes to come out. It’s incumbent upon [teams] to have a space where they can come out in an environment where people say, ‘This kind of language is simply not going to be tolerated. We’re going to accept everybody.’ That’s what we need going forward.”

In terms of how Buzinski and Zeigler move forward, their efforts to help bring about change lie in a continued commitment to highlight those in the sports world who are still too often overlooked, and to provide LGBTQ fans a space in sports media.

Asked about the impact he hopes their work has had, Buzinski says it’s simple.

“Just the idea that we told stories that had not been told before. We gave voice to people that didn’t have a voice before, that didn’t have an outlet before,” Buzinski says. “To me, that’s the legacy I want to leave — the stories Cyd and I told, and the countless people that felt a degree of comfort or confidence or strength from that.

“That’s the thing I’m most proud of.”

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