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Pro Sports Now Ready For Gay Athletes

Every indication points to a burgeoning transformation in sports that is making the leagues ready for a gay athlete

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a non-issue. I don't care if a guy comes out and says he's not gay or he comes and says he's gay. Who cares?" - Chris Chelios
"As far as I'm concerned, it's a non-issue. I don't care if a guy comes out and says he's not gay or he comes and says he's gay. Who cares?" - Chris Chelios
Jonathan Daniel

It's been one week since news of former NBA player John Amaechi's coming out party hit the Internet, and if there's one thing we've learned it's this: The idea that an active professional athlete in one of the big four leagues can't come out is now officially dead. Gone. Not to be revived. Sleeping with the Celtics' playoff chances. Dead.

Amaechi's revelation that he is gay has stirred a weeklong national discussion but, interestingly, precious little debate. That's because, while a handful of religious conservatives and sheltered ballplayers have expressed doubts or concerns about gay athletes, the overwhelming majority of comments have been positive and supportive - and much more so than many would have ever guessed.

"If [there was an openly gay player] in my locker room, we won't have a problem with it," New York Knicks coach Isaiah Thomas told Newsday. "I can't speak for somebody else's locker room, but if it's in mine, we won't have a problem. I'll make damn sure there's no problem.

"I don't consider it any issue at all," Detroit Red Wing Chris Chelios told the Detroit Free Press. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a non-issue. I don't care if a guy comes out and says he's not gay or he comes and says he's gay. Who cares?"

"It would not bother me if one of my players came out of the closet. He would get my support," San Francisco Giants owner Peter Magowan told the Sacramento Bee.

A coach, a player and an owner, reflecting the vast majority of voices in sports that have talked with the media over the past week: All three of them positive, all of them welcoming, and all of them circulated heavily around media outlets over the past week.

Still, if you asked the average person, they'd probably tell you how hard it would be for a gay player to come out. If you asked the average ballplayer, they'd probably tell you the same thing. Something about losing endorsement money, losing playing time, and losing fan support. Maybe batteries thrown at them on the field. Something like that. That's all based on a perceived reality that many in the media, who continually push the idea that sports is anti-gay, have created. But thanks to so many people in sports speaking positively about gay athletes in the last week, it's the facts that are now holding more weight.

Two statistics in particular stand out:

A sizable majority of professional athletes would welcome a gay teammate (by-sport it ranges from 57% in the NFL to 80% in the NHL), according to a 2006 Sports Illustrated study.

70% of fans would not think negatively of their favorite athlete if he came out of the closet, according to a 2002 Witeck-Combs study.

Most informative, however, may be the responses to questions asking how they think other players and fans would react if an athlete came out. Without exception, every study shows people believing their friends are more homophobic than they are. This perception, again, comes from the reinforcement from the media that sports and athletes are anti-gay; People don't have a problem with a gay athlete, but the media has repeatedly told them that everyone else does.

All of this isn't to say that coming out in professional athletics would be a bed of roses. There would be hardships. Some teammates would likely have a problem with showering with a gay teammate, and they'd probably make it known. Some fans would hold signs alluding to the "fag" on the floor (but truly, that would simply replace the other expletives used by taunting fans).

It won't necessarily be easy. But, contrary to popular belief, after the last week we can assuredly say it won't necessarily be hard, either. And, according to some, it may be positive and lucrative.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban hit on something that we at Outsports have been saying for a while, but at which most reporters we've said it to have scoffed:

"From a marketing perspective, if you're a player who happens to be gay and you want to be incredibly rich, then you should come out, because it would be the best thing that ever happened to you from a marketing and an endorsement perspective. ... On the flip side, if you're the idiot who condemns somebody because they're gay, then you're going to be ostracized, you're going to be picketed and you're going to ruin whatever marketing endorsements you have."

Sheryl Swoopes' coming out in October 2005 is a great example. She had a lot to lose. She was one of the top players in her league and she had endorsement deals to protect. But when she came out, her team stood behind her; Nike, with whom she had an endorsement deal, said they wouldn't drop her; And she picked up a lucrative endorsement deal with Olivia Cruises.

Of course, when we bring up Swoopes with male reporters and sports fans we hear, "She's a woman. That's different." While it may be different, it doesn't dismiss the example. The bulk of the condemnation in this country of gay people today comes from religious conservatives; And they don't discriminate when it comes to whom they discriminate against.

What team would cut a gay player two days or even two months after he came out? From the reactions of members of the media and general fans, it's clear that team would catch such hell they'd have to bring that player back onto the team and make him the team captain. Not to mention the fact that, depending on the city or state, the team may face a discrimination lawsuit.

By the same token, what company would drop a recently out gay player as one of their spokespeople? If Masterfoods would cave on a candy bar commercial featuring two men kissing after 12 hours of protest from some gay bloggers, just imagine what would happen if they told a gay player their services were no longer needed. Not to mention the fact that, as Cuban said, that player's stock would rise so fast any company looking for publicity would be crazy to drop him.

A great case-in-point is what happened with Kraft and the Gay Games this past summer. When it was announced that Kraft was going to sponsor the Gay Games in Chicago, there was an almost-immediate protest and threat of boycott from religious organizations. But Kraft stood by the Gay Games and said, "We have no plans whatsoever to change our stance based on this group's, or any other, objections." That's how almost any major company would handle any openly gay spokesperson; You can count on it.

The legacy of John Amaechi's coming out will forever be this: That it was his announcement that opened the eyes of this country to how far we have come in the acceptance of gay people since David Kopay came out in football in the 1970s. While the coming out of Esera Tuaolo and Billy Bean and Sheryl Swoopes gave people strength to talk positively about gay people in sports, it will have been Amaechi's announcement that put sports over the hump.

And, I dare say, it will be this newfound vision that will lead to more and more openly gay former athletes - and that elusive active pro athlete - sooner than we think.