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Breaking a barrier

NBA center Jason Collins says he has gotten "incredible" support since revealing in Sports Illustrated that he is gay and thus becoming the first openly gay male athlete in one of the major team sports in this country. As that support includes congratulations from a current and former president and some of the biggest stars in his sport, perhaps that's even an understatement.

What Mr. Collins has done is significant, of course, and he deserves all the good will and public support he can get. Pro basketball, baseball, football and hockey seem to be the last bastions of the "don't ask, don't tell" approach to the sexuality of their employees, if not outright hostility toward gays. The consequences of his coming out are not entirely clear, as the 34-year-old journeyman player is not signed for a team next season.

In this era of more enlightened attitudes toward homosexuality and fast-growing acceptance of gays and lesbians as friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers and even role models — not to mention the spreading legalization of same-sex marriage, an unthinkable development a generation ago — the reluctance of big-time male pro-athletes to join the 21st century has been striking. Was this the result of prejudice in the locker room, the stands, the owners' boxes, or all three?

As with any barrier-breaking, it takes one brave person to step forward, and Mr. Collins might seem an unlikely candidate, given his relative obscurity and age. This is not quite like a young, talent-laden Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier. For one thing, there are probably dozens of gay athletes already competing on these fields and courts — just not openly. For another, the Dodgers and Robinson were on the leading edge of social change and the civil rights movement of their time.

In contrast, this week's announcement seems badly overdue — like apologizing for Japanese internment camps five decades after the fact. Tennis star Martina Navratilova beat Mr. Collins to the punch — by 32 years. She came out as a lesbian in 1981 and received no tweets of support (or even that era's non-digital equivalent) from the White House.

It's not hard to speculate on the factors that have helped cause sports to lag behind so much of the rest of society. Surely, it starts with the way these sports tout manliness and aggression. Star players are "monsters" or "beasts," while those who fail are seen as "soft" or feminine or mocked with anti-gay slurs. In football and baseball, there's a particularly strong evangelical influence. And in such highly competitive endeavors, some players are naturally reluctant to buck the tide (or give management a reason to cut them). Then there are the endorsement deals and public images to worry about (although that doesn't seem to stop many pro athletes from using drugs, driving drunk, getting into fights or engaging in generally boorish behavior).

The gay barrier of men's pro sports was much evident here in Baltimore as Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo spoke out in support of same-sex marriage in Maryland. His choice to talk about equal rights for gay Americans as the team made its Super Bowl run was widely viewed as novel if not heroic. Although the Ravens stood by him (including refusing Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr.'s efforts to silence him at one point), the team's decision to release him several weeks ago prompted speculation over whether his outspokenness was too discomforting for the NFL franchise, a suggestion the Ravens denied.

Still, as much as Mr. Collins deserves the praise from President Barack Obama and others — and may yet have to endure some harassment at certain NBA venues before all is said and done — it's not clear how noteworthy his announcement may prove to be. In a matter of months, if not weeks, other players are likely to step forward; such is the pace of change and such is the likelihood that others will be inspired by Mr. Collins' choice.

Perhaps pro sports will prove to be the last major barrier to public acceptance of gays. What an irony that the military, which has produced so many sports cliches — from the aerial attack of football to the arm-cannons of baseball — would prove itself more progressive than those who are essentially in the entertainment industry.

The day can't come too soon when allegations that NFL scouts are asking college players about their sexual orientation are part of the distant past instead of something that came up during a recent pre-draft football combine. A high-five to Mr. Collins, but a boo to any sports franchise, league or fan base that does not accept equality.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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