by Clark Groome

Remember when it was impossible to see a black man on a Major League baseball team?

Remember when it was impossible to imagine a Roman Catholic being elected president of the United States?

Remember when it would have been ridiculous for a presidential candidate to name a Jew as his vice president?

Remember when it was illegal for heterosexual blacks and whites, let alone same-sex couples, to marry?

Remember when it was a crime to be gay?

Remember when it was a silly notion to think a woman could be a serious candidate for vice president or president?

Remember when having a black man as president of the United States was too far fetched to be considered?

Remember when the only gay people in the news or on TV were non-flattering stereotypes?

Remember when homophobic banter was acceptable?

Remember when there were no openly gay athletes in any of America’s four major team sports?

All of those issues are now in the rear view mirror.

Jackie Robinson, Jack Kennedy, Joe Lieberman, Geraldine Ferraro, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama have all moved our society’s diversity bar.

The courts, some state legislatures and the people have made for a more tolerant, congenial and accepting – if far from perfect – country.

Interracial marriages are commonplace.

Ten states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages, with three others likely to do so by year’s end.

Gay TV characters have put the lie to the stereotypes in shows as diverse as “Will and Grace,” “Ellen” and “Scandal.”

Elton John, Jane Lynch, Neil Patrick Harris, Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneris, among many, have had uninterrupted and, in some cases, improved careers after coming out.

Reporters and columnists have come out with little damage done to their credibility, with Anderson Cooper perhaps the best known.

So with that background, with the clear changes that society has made in the last decade, why did it take until last week for the NBA’s Jason Collins to become the first active athlete in Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL or the NHL to say publicly that he’s gay? It’s a question that’s hard to answer but, as with all the other issues of societal change we’ve dealt with since Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, the most likely answer is fear.

Athletes are insulated in their locker rooms. Until recently it was fairly common practice for athletes to use homophobic slurs on and off the field/court/ice. Gay athletes likely kept quiet out of concerns for their safety, their jobs and their friendships.

Thanks to the four professional leagues and some courageous straight athletes like former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayenbadeo, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, Tigers starting pitcher Jason Verlander, the irrepressible Charles Barkley and even NHL bad boy Sean Avery, that climate is changing.

Each league has a group dedicated to helping gay athletes and supporting young athletes as they struggle with the issue. Flyers scout Patrick Burke, whose gay younger brother Brendan was killed in an automobile accident in 2010, founded the NHL’s group You Can Play.

That organization, MLB’s participation in the It Gets Better program and anti-discrimination policies in all of the major sports leagues as well as a crackdown on players who use homophobic slurs, have made the stadiums, arenas and locker rooms safer places.

The fact that Jason Collins, a marginal player nearing the end of his career, was universally respected and liked before he came out, helps.

The timing of his announcement is interesting, coming as it does less than a month after a series of articles in the New York Times and elsewhere about the efforts of the pro leagues and some pro players to make it easier for gay athletes to come out and feel safe. His was a courageous and important step. He is a free agent at the end of his career who wants to keep playing. It will be interesting to see if he gets a job. If he does, the media will watch carefully how he is treated in the locker room and on the court.

My guess is that his announcement will be followed in short order by several others. Gay athletes will feel safer and less alone since Collins, in his words, “raised his hand.” They may also, understanding what a team is, not want him to stand out there alone. His courage and humility in making what had to be a very hard call is, in truth, a very big deal, for sports and for society.

The clamor will pass – as it did after Jackie Robinson was joined by other black players. Ultimately, all that will matter, and all that should matter, is how well a gay athlete plays and how positive he is in the locker room. The rest is just a distraction.

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