NFL remains the litmus test for gay athletes in professional sports

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Monday was a monumental day for professional sports.

There are several clichés associated with sports, with the most common being that we can learn lessons from these simple games that can be applied to everyday life. Sports transcend race, gender, or nationality. We like to believe that sports are the great equalizer, and what you look like or what you believe in ultimately doesn’t matter.

Monday, those clichés were put to the test. NBA center Jason Collins revealed that he is gay, becoming our first male active athlete to admit he was homosexual in one of the four major sports.

The real litmus test

Collins’ announcement was met with praise, well-wishes, and words of encouragement from fans and players. Yesterday’s outpouring of support showed that our society might finally be ready to accept an openly gay man in professional sports.

Of the four major sports, the NBA would seem to be the most likely to have an active gay player. Former NBA player John Amaechi announced he played his entire NBA career as a closeted athlete in 2007. Golden State Warriors executive Rick Welts revealed he was gay in 2011. There are only 12 to 15 players in each NBA locker room, and its sister sport, the WNBA, has several openly gay players, including some of its stars.

How the league, his teammates and the general public react to Collins this year (assuming he signs with another team), will be a litmus test for other gay athletes who are rightfully fearful of announcing their sexuality. The real test of how far our society has come, and just how accepting we are of gay athletes though, will be when there’s an openly gay NFL player.

Earlier this year, reported that an NFL player is strongly considering coming out in the next few months. Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said earlier this month that there are up to four gay NFL players that are considering coming out. Those athletes may be more inclined to announce and tell their stories after yesterday.

But they also may face a much harsher reality. NFL locker rooms have long been rumored to be much less forgiving of a gay player. A sport that is praised for its gladiator-like tendencies may have trouble accepting someone who doesn’t fit the stereotype of how we view a traditional football player.

NFL has work to do

There are recent examples that showcase there’s still work to do for the NFL to be truly welcoming of a gay athlete. During Super Bowl week, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver said that gay athletes “can’t be in the locker room” (along with several other insensitive comments). ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio said on “The Dan Patrick Show” in February that NFL teams wanted to know if former Norte Dame and current San Diego Chargers linebacker was gay, “because in an NFL locker room, it’s a different world. It shouldn’t be that way.”

After Collins’ announcement yesterday, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace tweeted:

All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys SMH…”

“I’m not bashing anybody don’t have anything against anyone I just don’t understand it”

He quickly deleted the tweets and apologized, but it’s clear that Wallace, and some of the NFL’s other current players, don’t understand gay people.

Comments from Culliver and Wallace aside, there does appear to be the beginnings of a shift in culture in the sport. Collins was universally lauded for his admission, and several NFL players took part in congratulating him on Twitter.

Collins announcement is a huge step, but there are several steps still left to make. The NFL is our most visible sport in this country. It’s the most identifiable sport…with fans of all genders, races and sexual orientations. If an NFL player makes the announcement – and is met with the same support as Collins has received – it will prove that (most of) society is comfortable with gay athletes in professional sports.

We’re making progress. But until we see an openly NFL gay player, and openly gay players in all of America’s major sports, there’s still considerable work to do.

Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace