The LGBTQ community has been making advancements all over American culture—from Supreme Court cases to video games. But in the world of sports, there is still one major hurdle that has yet to be cleared. No professional player of an American male team-sport—football, baseball, basketball or hockey—has revealed himself to be gay while still playing the game. A number of players have come out since retiring, as have some female athletes, and a number of professionals have voiced their support for their lesbian and gay teammates. But reports by CBS Sports' Mike Freeman that an NFL player is thinking about coming out have only intensified the discussion of this next major step.
"I think it's important for anyone who is a professional athlete, anyone who is anything, to come out," says Aaron McQuade, head of Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's sports program. GLAAD is one of many groups working with the NFL and other pro leagues to facilitate this process. Not only will an out pro athlete be an important example for other gay and lesbian athletes, says McQuade, but for their teammates and coaches as well.
"When they do come out it will help change the conversation about masculinity and what it means to be an athlete, not only straight men can pay sports well," says Wade Davis, a former NFL player who come out after retiring, and works with a number of LGBTQ organizations.
However, not everyone welcomed the speculation that news of the first gay pro football player may be on its way. Chris Clemons of the Seattle Seahawks tweeted that a public announcement of such would be a "selfish act" that would "immediately separate a locker room and divide a team."
"The only thing that's 'selfish' is asking a player to stay closeted," says Hudson Taylor, founder and executive director of Athlete Ally, which educates and mobilizes straight athletes to speak out in support of the LGBTQ community. "Putting someone in that position is such a horrible burden that goes against what it means to be a teammate."
Nevertheless, it's hard to deny that the announcement would cause anything less than a major stir. "Any type of announcement is a distraction—if you're having a kid, if you're getting married," says Davis. "Yes it's a distraction, but it's not a negative distraction."
"Obviously there's going to be a media frenzy. This person will certainly be followed, this person's partner, if he has one, will suddenly be a celebrity. This person's family will suddenly be in the spotlight," says McQuade. "The truth is we don't know. We don't know what kind of distraction it will be. It might be a positive a uniting force."
The first openly gay male pro athlete will be a symbol for gay community, but he will also be a person—with his own personality, reputation and relationships, and an athlete—who must consider the attitudes of his teammates, coaches, management, his team's hometown and even his contract obligations after coming out. "All of these things are factors and all are different" for every player, says McQuade.
Thus LGBTQ groups are working not just to create an open space for gay professional players, but for the athletic community as a whole. "The life of a professional athlete has been largely sheltered form LGBT issues," says McQuade, and educating teammates and managers will be an important step in the process.
Taylor co-wrote a handbook called "Champions of Respect" with the NCAA to help coaches and administrators deal with LGBTQ issues—from setting policies on inter-team dating, to handling an athlete's coming out, to holding discussions on faith and sexuality. His organization also conducts training at NBA rookie camps. "As soon as these players are coming into the league they know what is expected of them," says Taylor.
In dealing with players who say potentially disrespectful things about gays and lesbians, activists say it is important to be both reactionary—like fining or suspending players for offensive comments—and proactive. Teammates of gay players may just be nervous about talking to the press as the athlete himself, afraid of "saying the wrong thing."
"Most athletes aren't studying this book about what it means to be LGBT. They're studying playbooks," says Davis and thus he says it's important not to vilify comments like those made by Clemons. "We have to have compassionate. A lot of these players may be for it, they may be against it, but they deserve to have a voice."
GLAAD, Athlete Ally and other LGBTQ groups have had a long-standing relationship with the NFL and other pro leagues, working to make them hospitable places for gay players, but also for league employees. Many will be meeting with the NFL again this week. "We're hoping what will come out of it is a plan to speak to players," says McQuade.
But just as important is the work being done within the athletic community at large, as most athletes will never make it to the pros, says Davis. "What are we doing in colleges? What are we doing in high school sports?"
"Wherever it happens [that a professional male athlete comes out], the team, the league, the players, the teammates, his coaches, the fans, everyone involved is going to be providing an example to the world," says McQuade. " And we want to work with whoever is involved to make sure it is a good one."