The two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that advanced the rights of same sex couples to marry put into clearer focus the fact that major sports remain the final closet in American society.
Gay marriage is still illegal in 37 states despite the Court action, but the writing is on the wall. Within two decades (if not sooner), I am certain that LGBT couples will be able to marry in all 50 states. I hope that by then we have at least one openly gay NFL, NHL or Major League Baseball player. Ignoring that last bit of hyperbolic snark, when it comes to gay acceptance, sports lag behind the rest of society by 15 years.
An example of this came Tuesday at of all places the Pentagon. It wasn't too long ago that being openly gay in the military would get someone a discharge. But here was Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hosting a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Month event in the building at the heart of the U.S. defense establishment. That is stunning change in such a short time. In contrast, if the five prominent American pro sports had a similar event with the commissioners and all the out pro male athletes, they could book a cozy table for eight and have a seat left over.
Pro sports and their major college equivalents are still in the early stages of welcoming openly gay male athletes (lesbians face their own set of challenges). There is only one openly gay NBA player and one in Major League Soccer, but none in the NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball or Division I college football and basketball. In sports, we're just happy that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell finally voiced support for gay players, all the way back in April.
Yet, we have seen progress with Jason Collins in the NBA and Robbie Rogers in the MLS coming out within months of each other this year. When the Supreme Court issued its rulings, both men took to Twitter to applaud the decisions. Rogers went a step further by attending the celebration in West Hollywood on Wednesday after gay marriage was made legal again in California (see photo above). Six months ago, this would have been inconceivable. Such is the power of coming out.
Gay pro athletes are still wrestling with their sexuality and whether to eventually come out, let alone thinking about a wedding. The Court rulings do help by recognizing the validity of gay marriages. This mainstreaming of something consider not long as radical gives hope that one day being an openly gay pro athlete won't be front page news, simply because it's so common. It 2002, it was a big deal when the New York Times began printing same-sex wedding announcements; within six years, 1,000 papers did the same and today no one raises an eyebrow.
Change is coming to sports, despite the lag behind society, and demographics is the reason. Younger people overwhelmingly don't care if someone is gay, and that is filtering down to sports. We have more and more straight athletes, coaches, administrators, executives and leagues either embracing the thought of openly gay athletes or shrugging with a "if you can play, you can play" attitude. The trend is only going to accelerate and it will never go in reverse. The closet door is still shut, but not as tightly as before and it creaks open a little bit with each new coming out.
It's one step at a time before an openly gay pro male athlete goes from feeling comfortable just coming out to walking down the aisle with the man he loves. That day is coming, even if the rest of society has beaten him to it and is waiting to shower him with confetti and rice.