In the year since Michael Sam came out, the subject of homosexuality in professional sports has tipped from institutional taboo to high-profile talking point, but what use is a documentary that recaps everything audiences already know on the issue? So few high-profile athletes have come out over the years that the stories of those who’ve been open about their sexuality feel like old news. Those testimonies, mostly viewed far in the rearview mirror, make up most of Malcolm Ingram’s “Out to Win,” a tired treatment of a timely topic from the indie helmer whose “Small Town Gay Bar” did so much more to personalize the contemporary LGBT experience in America. Just one of several forthcoming docus determined to tackle a subject already discussed ad nauseam on-air, “Out to Win” lags far behind TV sports coverage in its production value, informational heft and emotional impact, but should score as a film-festival conversation starter.
Historically speaking, the pro-sports arena has been notoriously late to accept nearly every basic advance, from integration to gender equality, making discrimination against homosexual athletes merely the latest hurdle in an ongoing struggle to live up to even the most basic ideal of good sportsmanship — that is, to treat teammates and opponents alike with fairness and respect. But just because there are zero openly gay athletes in the NFL doesn’t mean that all of the league’s players are straight. Far from it — a fact Ingram doesn’t come right out and say, but clearly holds central to his rallying-cry approach.
“Out to Win” aims to inspire, not just young people dreaming of a career in sports, but also those who’ve accomplished that goal, and yet have been forced to deny that facet of their identity as part of the bargain. By casting those who’ve come out in the past as “heroes” — including women’s tennis game-changers Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, NFL vet David Kopay, retired baseballer Billy Bean and ex-NBA pioneer John Amaechi — the film aims to chip away at the potentially career-ending stigma that intimidates many athletes into keeping their identities a secret.
Granted, it took courage for these players to publicly embrace their homosexuality, even in cases like King’s, where the revelations weren’t necessarily their own choice, but rather uncovered by scandal-mongering news outlets. Though Sam himself isn’t interviewed in the film, his publicist Howard Bragman indicates that the announcement was Sam’s way of taking control of a situation where others were prepared to out the All-American defensive lineman if he didn’t act first. According to Outsports.com (whose co-founder, Cyd Zeigler, serves as a contributing producer and well-spoken source), the tide is turning, with at least 109 LGBT sports figures publicly speaking their truth last year.
Still, this emphasis on treating openly gay players as role models conveniently dodges the bigger issue — namely, the rampant, ongoing homophobia that has been allowed to fester for so long in the world of sports. Instead of cheerleading LGBT athletes’ decision to come out, why not go on the attack and out the institutions’ worst offenders for decades of discrimination? Why engage with such ridiculous questions as how gay players conduct themselves in the locker rooms, as if prison-shower cliches apply in such a professional environment, when the multi-million-dollar racket conspires to cover up sexual assaults perpetrated by straight players — to name just one of the industry’s many moral hypocrisies?
Younger audiences could be excused for watching “Out to Win” and asking, “What’s the big deal?” when the documentary fails to acknowledge the extraordinary lengths to which professional and college sports programs have gone to sideline talent solely on the basis of sexual orientation. Yes, the NBA banned Tim Hardaway for his “I hate gay people” slur (a sentiment that kicks off the film), but what are such organizations doing to eliminate the excuse that gay players are posing a potential “distraction,” other than introducing a new codeword for their own institutionalized homophobia?
Such tough questions are strictly out-of-bounds in “Out to Win,” which instead turns its attention to younger players. There’s Canadian hockey goalie Charline Labonte, who followed up her gold-medal win at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi by revealing that she is a lesbian (the news is still fresh during Ingram’s interview with Labonte, who nervously checks Twitter to see how fans are reacting), and unbelievably cute couple Chandler Whitney and Conner Mertens, college athletes who served as grand marshals for the Portland Pride parade. Their story, deserving of a documentary unto itself, reminds of director Scott Bloom’s “Out for the Long Run,” which cut past this pic’s superficial sizzle-reel treatment to provide a personal portrait of LGBT athletes competing at the high school and college level.