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Football is the key to ending homophobia in men's sports

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Homophobia in women's sports, and transphobia in all sports, have other key issues. But to end homophobia in men's sports, football is the biggest game in town.

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When I said at the LGBT Sports Summit a year ago that we would end homophobia in sports by 2016, most said I was crazy. The guys at Outside The Lines were intrigued, but doubtful. One activist in the movement said they thought I was joking. I wasn't.

I believe that three years from now the sports world will be viewed as a model of acceptance, that homophobia will be pushed to the corners of sports and that the idea that athletes can't come out at any level in any sport will be a distant memory.

Football is the key.

Outsports' two most-read coming out stories in the last year weren't about a professional basketball or soccer player, they were both about college football players. Part of that record response is certainly that some coming out stories -- like those of Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers -- were broken elsewhere. If Collins had come out first on Outsports, that would be our most-read story ever.

Still, the fact that our biggest stories revolve around football in particular is no coincidence.

The mass appeal received by our story last spring about former Div. 1 kicker Alan Gendreau, who at the time had the inkling to try to get into the NFL, wasn't a surprise.

The reception to our story last week about Willamette University kicker Conner Mertens was shocking. Mertens is an awesome kid, but at the end of the day he's a red-shirt freshman kicker at a Div. III school who hasn't played a down for his team. Some sadly even pooh-poohed the fact that he's bisexual. There was some snickering about it, to be sure. But most people were somewhere between curious and inspired: For the first time, an active college football player was coming out to the world.

The exposure for the story was enormous. In just four days it became the second-most read story on Outsports in over a year. It was carried across sports media --- including ESPN, CNN, Yahoo! Sports, Bleacher Report and our very own SB Nation -- and mainstream media like USA Today and the Washington Post. Fox Sports sent a TV crew to interview Mertens. The school had a press conference due to the overwhelming media interest.

Why all the attention? Football is king in America. In a Harris Poll conducted just last month, 46% of Americans called either the NFL or college football their favorite sport. That beats the combined number (44%) of Major League Baseball, the NBA, auto racing, the NHL, college basketball, men's tennis, men's golf, men's soccer and boxing. Combined. Football stories are simply of more interest to the average American than the stories of any other sport. That includes coming-out stories.

"Gay football player" also plays against stereotype like no other "gay" athlete. When we post the coming-out stories of athletes in some sports, we get the inevitable "of course he's in X sport," almost as though some fans dismiss the possibility of homophobia in certain sports. Of course, many others take great inspiration from these stories; But many of the folks whose perspectives we most have to change have a particular impression of what it is to be a football player and what it is to play just about every other sport. It's not right, and we're changing it.

Until we get more football players to come out publicly, people will continue to think sports are a desperately homophobic corner of our society. It doesn't mean I like it or agree with it -- It's just where we are right now.

Sunday's Super Bowl was the most-watched American broadcast in television history. That says a lot.

Every coming-out story in sports removes another brick from the wall. But when we post the coming-out story of a football player people take extra notice because, in the far distant reaches of the minds of fans and many in the media, it's still impossible to be gay in football. It's difficult in basketball, it's tough in baseball. It's gotten easier in soccer and hockey. Football? No. Impossible. We hear it over and over, even from many players who say they would be 100% supportive. "The culture is too macho," goes the mantra. "It would be too hard to come out."

Yet, all of the facts point to a very different dynamic. When gay players are out in the football locker room, they are accepted. The guys who once said homophobic things now apologize for what they said. We know college football players like Gendreau and Mertens and former college football captain Brian Sims who were out to their teams. We'll have the story of another college football player this week.

Things are changing, but it's been this way on many teams for years. Three Houston Oilers -- including Warren Moon -- have said they had at least two gay teammates, and the other players didn't care. At the beginning of the season, at least 62 active players had made positive public statements about gays and gay teammates; Most of the rest simply hadn't been asked.

Football's offseason began Sunday with the final tick of the Super Bowl clock. We used to have to wait until the lame Pro Bowl, but the NFL finally pushed that up so the Super Bowl is the end of the season. Whether in high school, college or the pros, there are no more tackles, more touchdowns, no more games.

The end of the season signals the real beginning of our culture-changing work in the sport.

Much of the issue at hand for the NFL is simply public awareness. The League has already shifted dramatically on our issues. They've been working closely with Wade Davis on programmatic work, like getting in front of rookies and developing creative ways to educate more players and NFL staff on LGBT issues. This is all super important and needs to happen five times as often. But at the professional level, the most important work to be done is visibility. Once guys hear their team leaders talk publicly on these issues, and the more they hear other teams accepting gay athletes, the faster attitudes shift.

At the high school and college level, much of the work involves sitting down with coaches and athletic directors. There is far more education that needs to happen with youth coaches who are less-trained and less dependent on wins and losses to keep their jobs. At those lower levels, coaches and athletic directors are the people who set the tone for the team. They are the key.

To be sure, lesbians have other issues to contend with. Given how few women participate in football at the high school or collegiate level (there are none in the NFL). It's hard to argue that football is the key to improving the sports environment for lesbians. Though, breaking down barriers for gay men in football can help undermine the "masc-bro-only" stigma of football that keep so many women from playing the sport.

But for gay men, football is the key. That's why Outsports has spent so much time covering football from our first day of publication, and why telling stories about gay football players and straight NFL players who are cool with the gays will be more of a focus for us in 2014 than it has in any previous year.