While the praise for Collins was generally universal, a sign of how much the country has moved in the right direction on issues of sexuality, there are still plenty of reasons to be skeptical of just how much the macho world of pro sports will be accepting of a gay teammate.
One doesn’t have to spend long hanging out in a baseball clubhouse or a football or basketball locker room to hear gay slurs casually thrown around. A player who gives up a home run, or fails to make a tackle, or gets dunked on, is often referred to as “gay” _ meant to describe weakness, someone who isn’t as good as the next guy.
Despite the efforts of athletes like NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, who have spoken passionately in support of gay marriage, the guess is more players feel like San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver and Miami Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace.
Culliver stirred debate before the Super Bowl when he proclaimed that none of his teammates was gay and he wouldn’t want to play with a homosexual. Wallace tweeted after the Collins announcement that he didn’t understand how someone could be gay _ “All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys SMH (shaking my head).”
Wallace had to backtrack from, delete and eventually apologize for two tweets; Culliver also apologized and underwent sensitivity training. Nevertheless, Ayanbadejo estimates that at least half the NFL players feel the same way.
I got an idea of how a locker room works a few years ago while working on a story about this very subject: whether pro sports was ready to accept an active player coming out as gay. Now-retired pitcher John Smoltz made it clear he was opposed to homosexuality on religious grounds, even asking derisively, “What’s next? Marrying an animal?”
Eddie Perez, then a catcher and now a Braves coach, said he would be uncomfortable showering and changing clothes in front of someone he knew was gay.
All of these point to what Collins or any gay athlete must overcome.
The machismo. The lack of understanding. The religious beliefs. The wariness of being in an intimate setting (though a locker room might be the least sexual place on the planet).
A highly respected player and teammate, Collins has helped chip away at some of those barriers. But if he doesn’t play next season _ or even if he does _ he’s just the next rung on the ladder, right above former NBA center John Amaechi, who revealed he was gay after his career was over.
More likely, Collins will be remembered as the guy whose courage helped persuade someone with more impact to come out, someone who can help us move even closer to the kind of world that Louganis would like to see.
“Our sexuality does not define us,” the Olympic champion said. “It is just a part of us, like being left-handed or 5-foot-9.”
We’re getting closer, but Collins isn’t the guy to get us there.
Hopefully, the next person will be.