“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
Think back to February of 2010 when Tim Tebow was featured in a Super Bowl commercial for Focus on the Family, a homophobic organization that campaigns and fundraises against same-sex marriage and even once opened an ex-gay ministry.
If it were discouraging enough to see bigotry distributed through millions of televisions and computer screens across America, Tebow’s unique rise to fame as a late-season replacement and later as a backup quarterback allowed conservative hate groups to raise him up on a pedestal to serve as an example of someone who practices “traditional family values,” the offensive term used to intentionally exclude LGBT people by saying that there is only one kind of family: One with a mother and a father.
But since that Sunday evening in the winter of 2010, there has been a remarkable shift in acceptance for LGBT people in sport. While we often speak of the 1969 Stonewall Protests as a major turning point in progress for equality, we can even look at the last few years as a major turning point for sports.
People around the playing field such as members of the media, team executives, and former players came forward with positive coming out stories. Straight allies spoke out in support of gay players and professional sport organizations began recognizing equality on more levels. Even the president voiced his support for marriage equality, saying, “It’s the right thing to do.”
As people around the playing field paved the road for someone on the playing field, it became inevitable. The country worked its way from the outside in and somehow arrived one of the most ironic conclusions ever. As I mentioned before, think back to that evening in February 2010 — the same evening that homophobic group was sending its homophobic message across the nation. Now, think about the headlines on April 29, 2013.
On the same day we saw Jason Collins become the first modern day openly gay male athlete in a major American professional sport, the New York Jets cut Tim Tebow.
Of course, the timing of this news was coincidental but serves as a powerful way to reflect on the atmosphere in this country. The people who worked hard to bring about equality are sleeping peacefully tonight; the people who used and exploited Tim Tebow to dump millions of dollars into the wrong hands are not. Now that we have an openly gay player, would that commercial even be able to run on a national level anymore? Would enough people accept it or would it be considered a slap in the face to Collins and the rest of the LGBT people and allies in the world?
The timing of Collins’ coming out story is also a reflection of the contemporary hegemonic structure permeating our male-dominated society and a reminder that we have a long way to go. Homophobia has always been a problem in sport because our society has placed such rigid, gendered expectations on men to be as masculine as possible. We have been falsely led to believe that all men should be masculine and therefore male athletes must produce a better show to watch than female athletes.
If our society wasn’t so male-dominated, we would actually respect women’s sports enough to give people such as Brittney Griner more than 15 minutes of fame when they come out. I also doubt many people knew about the Nigerian soccer team’s recent ban on lesbians because that was also swept under the rug shortly after being announced.
But for as long as female athletes have been coming out, it took us much longer to come around to accepting a gay male athlete. In the coming days, weeks, and months, it will be interesting to see the way Collins is framed by the media. By coming out, he already disproved many of the ideas and scenarios put forth by the mainstream media. At 34 years old, he has already helped dismiss the idea that a player, out of fear of getting cut or rejected because of his sexual orientation, has to have a stable career and superstar status in order to come out. That was the case in the past, but not anymore.
Collins finally succeeded in setting the example we were all waiting for, and he did so on his own. I had always said that we needed to allow an athlete to open his closet door himself rather than get pushed out. Now that he is out, we will have a chance to see for the first time that there is no need for an irrational fear of gay males on a professional sports team.
Here’s to hoping more players will follow behind him.