Gay Rights Talk at Super Bowl May Help Open ‘Last Closet'

"Sports aren’t necessarily this horrible homophobic institution anymore," a sports writer says.

Former NFL cornerback Wade Davis hears the pre-Super Bowl debate over gay athletes and same-sex marriage and one word comes to mind: progress.

Davis, a retired pro-football journeyman who came out last summer, even sees something positive in San Francisco 49er Chris Culliver’s disparaging remarks about playing with gay teammates.

“In a way, he’s doing us a favor, because we’re having this conversation,” Davis said. “Everyone’s talking about it on ESPN ... people are asking (players at the Super Bowl’s media day) about gay rights. That’s never happened before. That’s progress.”

Football, and pro sports in general, has traditionally been perceived as a bulwark of homophobia, a place where coming out would spell career suicide. In part, that remains true: no active American pro male athlete has ever said publicly that he is gay. But underlying that image is a widening acceptance of gays that reflects a similar shift in the general public, according to scholars, journalists and athletes who follow the issue.

“Sports is the last closet,” said Cyd Zeigler Jr., co-founder of the website Outsports. “Nobody’s out, but sports aren’t necessarily this horrible homophobic institution anymore. It’s just not.”

Much of that shift has to do with the fact that pro sports are played by young people, and young people are less likely to view homosexuals as undeserving of equal treatment on the playing field and in life, Zeigler said. He did his own survey of pro athletes, and said nearly all told him that they’d have no problem with gay teammates.

“People don’t realize how much sports have transformed. Guys really don’t care,” Zeigler said. “Culliver is just an outlier.”

The reaction to Culliver’s comments – in which he told a radio interviewer that there were no gays on the 49ers and “they gotta get up out of here if they do” – has shed some light on the transformation. The 49ers denounced his remarks, as did former 49er Kwame Harris, who is gay. Culliver ended up apologizing and saying he would “learn and grow from this experience.”

But the pre-Super Bowl conversation has not only involved Culliver, or Harris, who made news himself when he was charged with assaulting a former boyfriend. Members of the 49ers and their Super Bowl opponents, the Baltimore Ravens, spoke openly, and respectfully, on the issue of gay marriage. Ravens center Matt Birk said his Catholic faith fed his belief that only a man and woman should be wed. His teammate, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, continues to be a vocal proponent of gay rights.

What’s missing, of course, is an active player comfortable enough to acknowledge his homosexuality publicly.

One reason is there still may be fear of teammates’ reactions, especially among players who aren’t among the sport’s elite -- those who struggle to keep their careers alive, said Eric Anderson, an American sociologist who studies homosexuality in sport at the University of Winchester in the United Kingdom.

Another explanation is statistical: assuming that the rate of homosexuality is the same among athletes as among the general public, there are probably only few dozen active NFL players who are gay, Anderson said. Of those, the number of superstars who can assume the Jackie Robinson role is very small.

But Anderson said that when it happens – and it will – this “hero” will be inundated with sponsorships from gay-friendly companies, praised on TV talk shows and gain legions of new fans.

“Their cultural commercial value will go through the roof,” Anderson said.

Davis, the former NFL cornerback, said he thinks the NHL will be the first sport with an openly gay athlete -- perhaps because its players come from places with more liberal attitudes toward homosexuality, like Canada and Europe.

“Americans are further off, but we’re getting close, definitely,” Davis said.

He added: “The fact that we’re talking about gay rights before the Super Bowl, the largest stage in the sports world, is progress.”

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