Coming Out Again and Again
“Jordan,” asserts Phil Knight, “the endorsement was obvious. He was so athletic, he could jump, he could shoot, he was great in the clutch, he won, he was a very intense competitor. And we saw all those things in Sheryl.” He’s talking about Sheryl Swoopes, the first pick in the first draft in the WNBA, in 1997. Of course Nike signed her, Knight continues, “She’s a very attractive woman, she’s got a fabulous smile, and she has enormous flair for the game. Her persona and her name, it all went together, so it made perfect sense then.”
Appearing some 10 minutes into Swoopes, the Nine for IX documentary premiering on ESPN this week, Knight more or less incarnates the dilemma facing Sheryl Swoopes and so many professional women athletes. While the Air Swoopes was surely a milestone, the contract with Nike is also framed here by specific terms, as Knight not only compares her to Michael Jordan, but also notes in particular her physical attractiveness. As Hannah Storm’s movie points out, Swoopes also came with a marketers’ dream of a background, raised in a small West Texas town by a single mom (“If I had to choose to go back to a place, it would never be that place,” says her mother Louise, “I don’t look at it as being a fond memory because it really wasn’t”), playing basketball with her brothers and wearing their hand-me-down shoes.
But even as Swoopes “grew up with almost nothing,” as phrased by narrator Denise Nelson, she knew early what she wanted and could do well. “People always said you’re not going to amount to anything, this is where you’re going to be stuck for the rest of your life,” Swoopes remembers. When Louise tried to dissuade her from pursuing basketball, she wasn’t put off, but instead helped her high school team win a championship and accepted a spot with the University of Texas and the “legendary coach Jodie Conrad.” Her decision to leave that athletics powerhouse for the smaller Texas Tech exemplifies what journalist Dale Robertson calls a “pattern throughout her life, of taking sudden right turns and sudden left turns and this has continued, frankly, to this day.”
That Swoopes went on to lead the Lady Raiders to the 1993 NCAA women’s basketball championship suggests her decision was a good one, allowing her to be closer to home while following her basketball aspirations at the same time. Here and elsewhere, Swoopes tends to note the event and not to explore details of motives or consequences, instead gliding along the surface. Cutting from on-court highlight clips to earnest talking heads, from upbeat gametime tracks to sentimental piano, the film doesn’t break down political contexts, but only records that a series of events made Swoopes understand the significance of her breakthroughs, in the sport and in the culture, as well as the value of working with teammates and coaches, and also of her own inner toughness.
Presenting herself as a most admirable role model, Swoopes duly describes the contributions she made as a star for the Houston Comets (WNBA champions in 1997, ‘98, ‘99, and 2000), an Olympic champion, a working mother who was back on the court just six weeks after she gave birth to her son Jordan (named for you know who), and a member of a team who won the title after they lost their point guard Kim Perrot to cancer. The film renders these high and low points in a conventional chronology, rarely integrating elements and influences; so, Louise doesn’t comment much following Swoopes’ move to Houston, though Robertson serves as something of a biographer and her Comets coach Van Chancellor observes great games won and a couple of his star’s exceptional moves on and off the court.
Among these moves is Swoopes’ decision to come out while she was in a relationship with the Comets’ assistant coach Alisa Scott. Whatever consternation this might have caused the WNBA, David Stern and the NBA, or her teammates is barely hinted at (Tina Thompson calls the relationship, which evolved after Swoopes’ divorce, “kind of a codependency,” but doesn’t explain further), the film only observes the controversy within the gay “community.” Swoopes suggests that she had trouble with the WNBA, which had “actively promoted [her] as a working mom leading a heterosexual lifestyle,” but the film doesn’t indicate exactly what happened when, instead showcasing David Stern’s insistence that no one had a problem. Where Phil Knight again chimes in as to his corporate response (“She’s not a bank robber or a felon, she was not controversial to us internally”), the focus here is how the gay “community” reacted to her self-description, that is, not as gay or lesbian but as an individual in love with another individual.
This controversy is a compelling one, as indicated in exceptionally brief, slightly cryptic comments by ESPN writer LZ Granderson (“She wasn’t going to be a spokesperson or a hero in the way they wanted her to be”) and Sue Wicks, of the New York Liberty (“There was a little backlash in my community, the gay community”). But the film’s lack of attention to other effects of Swoopes’ coming out while still playing in the WNBA, especially given current public discussions about professional athletes coming out, leaves you wondering who doesn’t say what here. The atmosphere for WNBA players has long been “different” than for professional male athletes, and continues to evolve and to be inspire more forward thinking on the issue among its commercial partners (see: Brittney Griner’s 2013 contract with Nike, to model men’s clothes).
Swoopes’ journey has included many turns, some sudden and some not so sudden. Now remarried, to a man, and head coach of the women’s basketball team at Loyola, she continues to pursue her own path. If it doesn’t quite fit the shape of a conventional documentary, more power to her.