Professional athletes coming out would be biggest step yet for gay rights

Brendon Ayanbadejo, a 10-year veteran of the National Football League, was released by the Baltimore Ravens April 3. Having spent much of his pro career on special teams, the 36-year-old nevertheless made three Pro Bowls and was an important leader in the locker room. What he’s doing off the field, however, will leave a far more reaching legacy than anything he’s ever done on it.

Ayanbadejo is the leader of Athlete Ally, a group that advocates for the acceptance of homosexual athletes. Earlier this month, he made a bold claim that four active NFL players were “strongly considering” coming out as gay, which has never been done in the history of professional sports. In fact, not one professional athlete has ever come out as gay while active in his or her sport. Ayanbadejo said it’s about time we let them.

It’s now 2013, where Fortune 500 CEOs risk losing shareholders to protect policies of diversity and acceptance (Starbucks) and President Obama himself comes out in support of same-sex marriage. Three states voted to allow gay marriage in 2012. The National Hockey League has recently partnered with the You Can Play Project, a marriage the New York Times calls “the most comprehensive measure by a major men’s league in support of gay rights.”

Everything seems to be falling in place, with professional sports being one of the last unadvanced frontiers for openly gay members of our society.

History shows us that sports usually lend a helping hand to progress. One notable instance occurred in this very state and is now immortalized in Alabama and college football folklore.

Bear Bryant’s all-white 1970 team was preparing to face the USC Trojans at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. The Trojans featured a black running back, Sam Cunningham, and for a region of the country still getting over Jim Crow, this was somewhat of an occasion. After Cunningham pummeled Bama’s defense for 135 yards and two touchdowns, legend has it that Bryant fetched him from the locker room after the game and brought him to the Alabama locker room. Ignoring any disapproving remarks or stares, Bryant said something radical and controversial for the time:

“Gentlemen, this is a football player.”

That gesture is widely cited by Alabama football historians and fans as one of the most important forces to convince the state that black players should be given a chance to be coached by the Bear. Attitudes shifted, and the rest is history.

It’s now decades later, and sports have the potential to have that same effect on social progress as when Bear Bryant arranged that matchup with USC. There are a few differences, and the present issue of homosexuality in sports will affect the whole nation instead of just the Deep South, but the wider issues bear much of the same burden.

No matter how much the country’s attitudes have changed on homosexuality, the first professional athlete to come out will face a difficult task. Progress has its fair share of doubters. It could be messy, and there will be backlash.

However, as one of the most significant cultural forces in our society, professional sports have an obligation to lead the way in tolerance. We have the responsibility to accept it.