Culliver, too, faced 24 hours of public condemnation and a team reprimand before apologizing. But his comments drew no fine or suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell, and three weeks later employees of NFL teams at the scouting combine felt compelled to ask at least one prospect, "Do you like girls?" If nothing else, that shows that the four premier leagues have hardly evolved at society's pace.
"I think we're there," says Jarron Collins, Jason's 6'11" twin and a longtime NBA player. "The locker rooms are there. Religion, race, sexual preference—at the end of the day it comes down to this: Is that guy a good teammate? In a business sense, is there value added? My brother has proven, for 12 years, that he is. Ask his old coaches, his former teammates. He'll help you win games, and that's what you're looking for. So, I do think the NBA is ready."
In April the NHL announced its intention to be "the most inclusive professional sports league in the world," with a new initiative dedicated to LGBT outreach and education of its players and a partnership with the You Can Play Project, an organization dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports. Is hockey ready? Sean Avery was asked that question last Friday. "I think all the sports are," said the notorious agitator who, as a left wing for the Rangers in May 2011, became the first pro athlete in New York to publicly support marriage equality. "There's going to be this one individual who comes out, and in a year I'm sure there's going to be a few more, and I'm sure people are just going to be used to it. Listen, there's going to be fans who ridicule this individual—much like race is still an issue with fans and the way they talk to athletes. But six months or a year down the road it's not even going to be an issue."
If Major League Baseball and the NFL, especially, seem a step or three behind the more internationally textured winter sports, there's a widespread feeling that any player engaging in homophobic acts or dialogue in any sport would face the same—if not worse—abuse from teammates, fans and, certainly, management, as any athlete who comes out. The impassioned support from former Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and Vikings punter Chris Kluwe in the NFL, and from Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy (all marked by a deft and biting mastery of social media) has made being a straight supporter of gay rights seem downright cool.
Will there be opposition? Bet on it. But if you want to get a sense of how even old dogs can pick up a change in the wind, consider that the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Little Falls, N.J., will this week announce a new partnership with Athlete Ally, a consortium dedicated to the straight support of LGBT issues, in the fight against prejudice and homophobia in sports. The 87-year-old Berra was a close friend of racial pioneers Larry Doby and Elston Howard, and in mid-June his museum will unveil an 800-square-foot exhibit that traces a direct line from Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier to today's struggle by the likes of Jason Collins.
"Respect the game, respect others—that's what I always learned in sports," Berra said in a statement released by the museum. "Whatever background or whatever you are, it didn't matter. Treat everyone the same: That's how it should be."
IT'S CLEAR, of course, that Collins will now, and for the rest of his life, be seen more as an icon than as a player. This was always the paradox for any gay athlete working through the decision: While the long-term goal is for sexual preference to be a nonissue, the first man in one of the major team sports to come out knew that his sexual identity would overshadow his game. And Collins's status as a limited, if valued, role player guarantees it. He is no Ben Roethlisberger or Allen Iverson, players who could obscure their off-field lives with breathtaking performances. That fact alone demands that any comparison with Jackie Robinson, Hall of Famer, be handled with care.
Not that it makes Collins's road easier. In a sense, his lack of playing stature robs him of the one currency that could insulate him from whispers—all but assured if he has a disappointing season or costs a team wins—that he's a token hire, on the roster merely to allow team, league and fans to feel progressive, or that he's at career's end and trying to hang on anyway he can. The reason pro sports has been such a ripe target for gay activists, after all, is that it's the ultimate results industry. Talent is power. The more you have, the more you wield.
"It does make a difference—at least when it comes to the clubhouse," McCarthy said last Thursday. "Nobody cares what anybody does away from the field. You could be a notorious drunk, a terrible person; you could be a wonderful person, a die-hard Christian. As long as you have talent, everybody just kind of goes, 'That guy's a great player.' And everything else is just washed aside.
"It would certainly be easier to a point if you were one of those players—as opposed to a player who might be fighting for a position. Then it becomes more difficult to have this conversation. He might feel more of a burden."