Obviously there are a number of pro sports that have featured gay stars, notably tennis and golf, but team sports seem to be a completely different deal. From basketball and baseball, to football and hockey, to European and British soccer, all have been increasingly inundated with the question.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear two major cases on same-sex marriage this week, bringing this discussion under even more of a spotlight. What does this have to do with sports? As NFL linebacker Scott Fujita wrote in the New York Times a few days ago, “historically, sports figures like Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King and Muhammad Ali have been powerful agents for social change. That’s why the messages athletes send — including the way they treat others and the words they use — can influence many people, especially children.”
Fujita is part of a group of NFLers that submitted a brief to the courts outlining the importance of marriage of equality. Sound weird? Again, Fujita says “In many respects, the football locker room is a microcosm of society… football players are not the meatheads many think we are. For some of my friends who raise personal objections to marriage equality, they still recognize the importance of being accepting.”
If football, and all other pro sports are a microcosm of society, then there should be plenty of gay pro athletes who, if able to truly be themselves, would probably change many attitudes. A recent study reported that about 5% of Canadians identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Take that stat to sports and it would apply to 34 of the approximately 690 players in the NHL and 84 of the 1,696 players in the NFL.
CBS Sports’ Mike Freeman writes that his sources say “a current gay NFL player is strongly considering coming out publicly within the next few months.” And that while much of the discussion around sports focuses on the reaction in the locker room, “This player’s true concern, I’m told, is not the reaction inside an NFL locker room but outside of it. The player fears he will suffer serious harm from homophobic fans, and that is the only thing preventing him from coming out.”
It’s a classic chicken/egg situation. The more players that are openly gay, the more it will become a non-issue with fans. But one of the major obstacles preventing players from coming out is a fear of fan reaction. This surprised me a bit, but brings up the question—maybe we fans should stop asking how the athletes will react to such move and look a bit closer to home.
Having more out pro athletes will only help and elevate the discussion of tolerance and acceptance. Just as a Republican senator can change his mind on same-sex marriage after learning his son is gay, sports fans attitudes will change once a gay pro athlete helps their team make the playoffs. As Patrick Burke & Co have been saying, “if you can play, you can play.”