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Jock Talk: Acceptance of gay athletes is rising

by Roger Brigham

Former New England Patriots offensive tackle Ryan O'Callaghan<br>came out as gay last week. Photo: Courtesy Facebook
Former New England Patriots offensive tackle Ryan O'Callaghan
came out as gay last week. Photo: Courtesy Facebook  

More than four decades after David Kopay became the first former NFL player to come out of the closet, the vast majority of gay athletes in men's pro team sports remain reluctant to follow his lead. A damned shame, too, as events during the past Pride week proved once again that acceptance of gay athletes is steadily rising.

Hell, in the National Basketball Association, they'll even march in a parade with you to celebrate your right to be fabulous.

For the second year in a row, the NBA had a float in the New York City Pride parade last Sunday. Among the notables on the float were Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts and his partner, Todd Gage; former player Jason Collins, the first openly gay active athlete in the NBA; Commissioner Adam Silver; and referee Bill Kennedy, who came out in 2015 after then-Sacramento Kings player Rajon Rondo called him by a gay slur.

"It was an exhilarating thing to be able to know that the people that I work for and the company that I work for are as open and inclusive as they are," Kennedy told the New York Times. "For me personally, it was a long time coming. So to be able to share and be out and be open and not worry about where you go or who you're talking to â€" just drop the baggage, let it go and be you. That's what this is about: Just be you."

The WNBA franchise New York Liberty also became the first pro team to have a float in that city's Pride parade. Head coach Bill Laimbeer and seven players were among those representing the Liberty.

The fact that the Times, the newspaper in which Welts originally came out, covered the league's participation in the parade is an indicator of how far we've come. When the first Gay Games were held in San Francisco in 1982, the Times would not use the term "gay." (It did, however, report wrestling results from an event it referred to as the Homosexual Games.) Welts served as a grand marshal of San Francisco's Pride parade two years ago.

And lest you think the NBA is just giving LGBT rights lip service, consider this: last season the league pulled its All-Star Game from North Carolina because of that state's law that undercut protections for LGBT individuals. (The law, House Bill 2, has since been repealed and the NBA announced that its 2019 All-Star game will be played in the Tar Heel State.)

"We, of course, have a team in Charlotte," Silver said at the time. "So we as a league want to make sure there is an environment where the LGBT community feels protected down in North Carolina. I know I speak on behalf of our owners, our teams and our players. I think they all feel very strongly that this is a core principle of our league, and that where we choose to celebrate something like an All-Star Game, that those values should be honored."

Need more evidence of LGBT acceptance in men's pro sports? Former New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle Ryan O'Callaghan came out on Outsports.com last week to talk about his struggles dealing with suicide and accepting his sexuality. He said that he received thousands of supportive social media messages in the first couple of days after his coming out. His story has also been picked up with positive coverage in national and international mainstream sports media.

"This story has been a long time coming," O'Callaghan, who grew up in Redding, California, wrote on Facebook. "I hope I'm able to help other gay people in sports, as some people were there to help me when I needed it most. Proud to be a part of this community."

In Seattle, the five local professional sports teams worked with Athlete Ally to announce their pledge of support for the LGBT community.

"Today the Seattle sports community is telling the world that athletes, coaches, fans, and officials, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, should have equal access, opportunity and experience in sports," Athlete Ally founder Hudson Taylor said June 20. "This marks an unprecedented effort where a city's entire professional sports roster stands together to champion LGBTQ inclusion and equality."

The Seahawks are not currently in season, but the other four pro franchises â€" the Mariners, Storm, Sounders and Reign â€" all said they would hold promotional games to help the LGBT community.

On the other hand, there is no question homophobic taunts remain the jeer of choice for many soccer fans. At soccer's most recent World Cup qualifier in Mexico, fans shouted "puto" at the American goalkeeper every time he handled the ball. Puto is slang for male prostitute and is used to denigrate gay men.

"Slurs like this are part of the violent context that we live," gay rights activist Paulina Martinez told the Los Angeles Times. "Homophobia is very much a part of our national discourse."

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