Let me rephrase that. Remember back when the idea of professional athletes being gay was completely implausible because pro sports organizations would rather recruit a Martian with laser eye stalks than an openly gay person?
It doesn’t seem that long ago to me. But the sports landscape appears to be changing. Sort of.
Over the last few weeks, a spate of pro athletes have made public statements saying they’d have no problem with a gay team member. And in fact, they’ve gone on to say that they don’t think any athlete should have to hide his orientation from teammates, or feel in any way ashamed or intimidated to enter their own locker room because of it. OutSports recently reported that Ray Edwards of the Atlanta Falcons, Takeo Spikes of the San Diego Chargers, George Wilson of the Buffalo Bills, Taiwan Jones of the Oakland Raiders and Kamerion Wimbley of the Tennessee Titans have all voiced support for out athletes. (Sure, some of their comments were a little forced. In his interview, Edwards felt the need to give the caveat “as long as they don’t [hit on] me, I’m fine.” And a few of the guys played the Hey, some of my friends are gay card, which I have to admit always sounds a little forced to me.
But still. It feels like something important is happening here. At last count, two dozen NFL athletes have come out about accepting teammates who might someday… come out.
It’s happening in other sports too. Washington Capitals (that would be hockey) forward Matt Hendricks wants homophobia out of his sport, and recently took part in the You Can Play Project, created to help athletes in all sports feel safe and comfortable enough to come out.
The overal consensus from these guys is: if you can play, you’re on the team. Period.
Stop and think about the amazingness of that. I’m betting this philosophy was not taught to these guys by their coaches in high school. Unless school sports have changed dramatically since I was a teenager, this level of acceptance and encouragement was absolutely never part of the deal. (Granted, I graduated from high school 24 years ago, and it’s possible that things have changed a little since then.) So this whole thing is very exciting.
It’s also a little mysterious. Is this happening simply because of a cultural shift that’s finally reverberating in sports? Or because PR agents are schooling their players on how to be more savvy and media-friendly? Or is someone just spiking the Gatorade? Regardless of the reason, progress is progress.
Not that there aren’t still some folks out there in need of some schooling. Boxer Manny Pacquiao busted out last Spring with some pretty hateful comments about how gay rights go against the will of God. And then there’s the most recent story this week of college football player Jamie Kuntz, who was kicked off the North Dakota State College of Science team after being spotted kissing his boyfriend, his behavior described by his coach as “detrimental” to the team and “distracting” overall.
But this is a process, and these are steps. As a newly-minted gay guy who’s impatient for the world to step up and embrace the concept of equality for everyone, I’m finding it’s best to focus on the good stuff: the athletes who aren’t afraid to support gay people in their quest for equal rights. Particularly in the NFL,which has been saturated in big-time homophobia for a long, long time. Even if the trend of ball players supporting gay athletes is being fueled by some sort of PR machine trying to polish the organization’s image, that doesn’t make it any less important.
My 10-year-old daughter probably won’t witness a lot of locker room bigotry when she gets to high school. She isn’t destined to be a particularly gifted athlete. Her after-school inclinations lean towards music, theater and sci-fi. This means two things: 1) she’ll probably only be exposed to sports by watching weekend football games with me, and 2) she’s going to end up in clubs and organizations where she’ll likely meet and become good friends with plenty of gay kids. And I’m proud to say that so far, when she’s witnessed some playground homophobia, she’s stood up and put a stop to it. Having a good relationship with her gay dad helps too, of course. So I’m not too worried about how she’ll handle social ignorance next time she sees it.
As for what other kids are learning? As I watch the cultural climate shifting in pro sports, it’s becoming easier to imagine a trickle-down effect that will bring more acceptance to ball fields and playgrounds everywhere, eventually.
Works for me.