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Mason Darrow and Princeton football show how far we've come

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Mason Darrow felt complete acceptance from his Princeton football teammates and coaches from the moment he told them he's gay. That's exactly the way sports should be. That's what sports teams have become.

The 2014 Princeton Tigers offensive lined embraced openly gay Mason Darrow, No. 77.
The 2014 Princeton Tigers offensive lined embraced openly gay Mason Darrow, No. 77.
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"That's all right, that's OK, one in four of you are gay."

That was a cheer the students of Princeton bellowed during football games against Yale in the late Eighties. A recent report had labeled Yale the "gayest" campus in the country. Twenty-five years ago, Princeton students couldn't help but pounce on it.

Everything has changed. Princeton now has the only publicly out football player in Div. 1. An FCS school, the Princeton Tigers have one of the most storied football programs in college football dating back to the very first college football game ever played, a tilt against Rutgers.

To understand the significance of Mason Darrow's story, you need only look at the reactions of the team's head coach and two of his fellow offensive linemen.

"This isn't going to bother people if you tell them," Caleb Slate told Darrow.

"He's a great teammate," head coach Bob Surace said. Surace is a Princeton grad and spent eight years as an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals. "I think if you ask anybody on the team, they'll tell you he's a terrific teammate."

"I'd known him for probably five or six months before he came out," said roommate and fellow O'lineman Jack Knight. "And I knew he was a great person, a great guy. It was a non-factor. It's like, that's your personal life, that's for you and that's for me to respect."

Not long ago, these reactions were impossible. Football was held as the pantheon of masculinity in American culture, and nothing was less masculine than a gay man. The students and fans at Princeton knew that and took advantage of the dynamic with their crude cheer.

No such cheer will be heard from Tigers or Leopards fans as Darrow and his Princeton teammates take the field at Lafayette College this Saturday. Sports have transformed on LGBT issues, and Darrow will show just how far we have come.

When I visited Princeton last week I happened upon director of football operations Mike Cerullo. By a strange coincidence, he had been an assistant coach with the Masconomet High School football team in the late 1990s when Corey Johnson played for the team. Johnson famously came out to his teammates and coaches and was reportedly the first high school football captain ever to come out publicly, as he did in the New York Times and others.

"It's amazing how much has changed in those 15 years," Cerullo told me on the sidelines of the Princeton practice field. He had seen the mixed reaction Johnson received from teammates in 1999 -- a mixed reaction that ultimately turned into complete acceptance. Darrow received complete acceptance from the first time he uttered the words "I'm gay" to a teammate.

There will be those who qualify the team's reaction with ideas of a "typical Ivy League response." Yet about a quarter of the team is from the Bible Belt, a fact that did not sit well with Darrow as he considered whether to share his true self with his teammates.

"I thought there would e a lot of animosity," Darrow said. "There are a lot of guys from the South. I wasn't sure how people would react to it."

The first person he told was from the most conservative part of Florida. His roommate is from North Carolina and had never had a gay friend until Darrow.

They reacted perfectly.

It seems foolish at this point that we would have ever thought the sports world might be more homophobic than any other corner of society. The ultimate meritocracy, sports are designed to ignore personal differences and focus on the contributions and athlete makes on the field. Full stop.

Darrow is, like so many other LGBT athletes, a sign of the times, not a harbinger of things to come. Acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender athletes and coaches is here today, not some goal off in the distance. People like Darrow and his Princeton football teammates shine a light on just how far we've come.

Now we just need more athletes to do the same.