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The first openly gay player in the NBA, Jason Collins, played his first game for the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday night, since coming out last summer. His performance was forgettable, but the implication behind his appearance was undeniable. It was a huge step for the sporting world’s LGBTQ community.
However, despite homophobia in sports culture looking like it’s losing steam, old stigmas and slurs remain present.
Ryerson students saw a Pride House built on Gould Street as an Olympic viewing lounge. And pride was quite clearly a hot topic at the forefront of this year’s Olympics in Sochi. But now, long after the closing ceremonies and the dismantling of the Pride House, the issue of homophobia in sports lingers in the air.
The reality is that Collins, the first openly gay active player in any of the “big four” North American sports, has blazed a trail that many have forgone in the past because of the heavy stigma homosexuality carries in sports.
Former NFL defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo waited until 2002, three years after he retired, to come out on an episode of HBO’s Real Sports. He would later say in interviews that he simply couldn’t come out while he was an active player; the locker-room culture had even pushed him to consider suicide multiple times.
Recently, a Missouri collegiate athlete, Michael Sam, has announced to the media that he is gay. Projections see Sam getting selected in a later round of the NFL draft, which would make him the first openly gay active player in NFL history.
While speaking to the media at the NFL’s combine this past weekend, Sam told reporters, “I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player, instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.”
Yes, the only reason Sam is being bombarded by reporters throughout his tryouts is because he opened up about his sexuality. And of course it’s discouraging to see a player solely identified as “the gay player.” But Sam is taking an immensely important step, not only for athletes on a professional level but amateurs and everyone else who loves sports.
In the summer of 2012, I had the pleasure of coaching a little league baseball team. I made sure to teach respect and fair play in a competitive environment. I’m proud to say my team held to those values and never insulted an opponent in any discriminatory fashion.
I wish I could say the same thing for the opposing coaches.
Homophobic slurs were second nature to some of them. It was especially discouraging to speak with a coach before the game and get along with him, only to see him jokingly yet derisively call his players gay, among more offensive slurs, throughout the course of a game.
This lack of respect is due in large part to old sporting holdovers. The existing mentality sees homophobic slurs as a way to insult opponents’ masculinity, and a way to get in their heads. This is where athletes like Sam become so immeasurably important.
While Sam may feel discouraged, and understandably so, for being known as “the gay football player,” that identity in today’s sports climate cannot be underestimated. The hope is that athletes today can be recognized in such a way so that in the future, it’s no longer taboo.
Athletes like Collins and Sam are paving the way to a day in sports where calling a person gay isn’t a tactic, and isn’t what makes them famous. It would just be a part of who they are, unrelated to the uniform they put on, and the sport they love.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on February 26, 2014.