Professional sports prepare for openly gay athletes

The big four of North American sports have started to make major inroads with the gay and lesbian community and we couldn’t be more supportive.

Our country has already taken big steps toward acceptance on the institutional level in just the past 10 years. In 2003, the Supreme Court put an end to Texas’, and by extension 13 other states’ prohibitions on same-sex intercourse with its ruling in Lawrence v. Texas. In 2011, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed, allowing gay men and lesbian women to serve openly in our military. Since 2011, the Obama administration has refused to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. As of 2013, nine states and Washington, D.C. now allow same-sex marriage. However, it’s one thing for the government to endorse gay rights, it’s another thing altogether for one of America’s most revered cultural outlets to do the same.

What cultural institution do Americans most identify with? Pro sports are certainly a strong contender. According to a 2011 Marist poll, 61 percent of Americans consider themselves sports fans; in 2012, the MLB drew over 74.8 million to its parks; the NFL’s Super Bowl regularly breaks the record for the most-watched event in American television history.

Pro sports have played a big role in breaking down cultural barriers. Jackie Robinson didn’t just break the color line when he first donned Dodgers blue in 1947, he also set the stage for greater acceptance of people of color in society. Every time he stepped to the plate on the national stage, he proved racial integration wouldn’t damage the national pastime — that there was nothing un-American about the color of one’s skin. We don’t think sexual orientation will be any different.

The groundwork for openly gay and lesbian athletes has been in the works for the past several years. All of the major sports leagues now have policies against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Various current and former players and officials have come out in support of inclusiveness. Just last Thursday, the NHL jumped ahead of the rest of the pack, launching an initiative to combat homophobia. We applaud such activity and hope the NHL’s action will spur the other leagues into a competition, jockeying to outdo one another’s inclusive initiatives.

All this preparation comes with apt timing as the reality of gay sports figures in the big four nears salience. On April 5, in an interview with The Baltimore Sun, LGBT rights supporter and former NFL linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo stoked the hopes of many by announcing that “as many as four players could conceivably come out simultaneously” in the near future.

With the imminence of openly gay athletes, the foundation being laid by the pro sports leagues is both vital and welcome. It is undeniable that when gay players start to disclose their sexual orientations, there will be backlash. Creating an accepting environment now can go a long way toward mitigating such criticism. A smooth transition into such an important part of what defines many of us as Americans will have major, positive effects for the gay community. Institutional support alone will not change people’s minds. Making the diverse range of sexual orientations an integral part of the American identity will.

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