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Acceptance of gay players will be an issue in 'jungle' of male locker room

Mike Bianchi

SPORTS COMMENTARY

9:05 PM EDT, April 30, 2013

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Jason Collins did the right thing.

He did the courageous thing.

And he should be applauded and accepted for what he did this week.

But do not for a second believe that the uniform message of approval flooding in about Collins being the first openly gay active player in a major American team sport is the same sort of message being espoused in locker rooms around American sports.

"Proud of (Jason Collins)," Kobe Bryant tweeted Monday when Collins came out of the closet and acknowledged he is gay. "Don't suffocate who (you are) because of the ignorance of others. #Courage. #Support. …"

Yes, this is the same Kobe Bryant who two years ago got caught on camera using a despicable homophobic slur when complaining about a referee; the same homophobic slur that is often heard in locker rooms throughout professional sports. In other words, politically correct pro athletes may say one thing for public consumption and something entirely different when they are behind the closed doors of their rude, crude, testosterone-charged locker rooms.

Granted, Collins coming out of the closet isn't exactly Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, but it's certainly more significant than some people are acknowledging. We may be in 2013 when the President of the United States has come out in favor of same-sex marriage, but NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball locker rooms aren't exactly the most enlightened sanctuaries in the country. If you think homophobia isn't an issue among young, macho professional athletes, you're delusional.

Count Orlando Predators coach Doug Plank, who has played and coached in the NFL, as one who is concerned about how a gay player will be accepted inside a pro sports locker room – particularly in football.

"Everybody tries to be politically correct … especially people who operate in business and other public occupations," Plank told me several days ago. "But you get inside an NFL locker room, I tell you what, it's something else. It's a jungle in there. … Last time I was in an NFL locker room, changing clothes every day and getting ready to go out to practice, I just think that would be a very, very tough environment for someone to come forward and say they have different sexual orientation."

"We've certainly seen so much more acceptance (outside the locker room)," Plank said. "It's almost normal now. It's not a big issue. But there are still those last bastions that are left, and sports are one of them. You get into a locker room with these types of individuals that are very, very driven and very physical, and I think it's still an issue."

Racism was conquered long ago in sports, but homophobia still remains. I've always said locker rooms, huddles and dugouts might be the most racially unified venues in all of society. These are places where the only color that players, coaches and fans care about is not the color of the skin but the color of the uniform.

Ask yourself: Where else but an NBA arena like the Amway Center can you go to see 17,000 mostly white fans cheer and celebrate the accomplishments of a team that is mostly black? Black point guard Jameer Nelson of the Magic has no trouble dishing off to white center Nik Vucevic. And white quarterback Blake Bortles of UCF has no issue throwing the football to black wide receiver ball Quincy McDuffie. As former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy likes to say, the playing surface is as close to a "meritocracy" as you can find in society.

But how many athletes will be as accepting of someone with a different sexual orientation as they are of someone with a different skin color? Let's face it, sports locker rooms are the ultimate "jock-o-cracy" where athletes are instructed to "man-up" and gay slurs are part of the nomenclature.

Why do you think it's taken so long for an active male athlete to acknowledge he's gay? And why do you think Collins, an aging free agent on the tail end of his career, waited until he was no longer on a roster?

Here's all you need to know: Brittney Griner -- the Baylor University star, No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft and perhaps the hottest name in women's sports – announced she was gay several days ago and it was barely a blip on the media radar. But Collins, an obscure NBA journeyman, comes out and overshadows even Tim Tebow being cut by the Jets.

"It's not easy to come out when one is still active," tweeted tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who announced her homosexuality at the height of her iconic career in 1981. "Shouldn't be an issue, but it is. That's why so many don't do it until after (their career ends)."

The question now is this:

Will any NBA team have the guts to sign Jason Collins?

Or will his ground-breaking announcement also turn out to be a career-ending one?

mbianchi@tribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @BianchiWrites. Listen to his radio show every weekday from 6 to 9 a.m. on 740 AM.