Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The New Normal

First there was the call for the anonymous trailblazer, the modern day Jackie Robinson.

Then there was Robbie Rogers (although the "American" sports-centric press barely gives him passing mention).

And now Michael Sam. And Jason Collins (although Collins was really before Rogers or Sam, but wasn't playing professionally at the time).

This is the third year in a row that I've felt compelled to write about sexual orientation in sports, right around this time each year. And my how the dialogue has changed. From the (apparently) radical idea that athletes can hasten societal change, we are now at the point where the vast majority of the country recognizes that Rogers, Sam, and Collins are helping do exactly that. 

Sure, there has been the predictable backlash (primarily behind the anonymous curtain of social media), but there has been much more pubic praise for the fortitude that was displayed in coming out (Sam) and signing an NBA contract as its first publicly gay player (Collins). There's even the interesting symmetry between Collins' debut with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets, and Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers.

Michael Sam (photo from theshadowleague.com)

To be clear: I am by no means claiming this as a victory for sports over society. Obviously, a conscious decision has been made by many in our country over the last few years to reexamine our attitudes toward sexuality, both individually and collectively. But, because they are such a part of our social consciousness, sports, more than perhaps anything else, cause us to examine issues that we may have casual or even subconscious predilections toward in a new way.

Interesting, too, is that "news" regarding female athletes coming out is no longer really news. While one might think that this is due in part to simple stereotyping (i.e., female athletes being regarded as "mannish"), I believe it's more likely attributable to the realization that female athletes were the real ground breakers regarding sexual orientation long before males made, or more precisely were required to make, their sexuality a public issue.

Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Sheryl Swoopes paved the way for Megan Rapinoe, Britney Griner, and Abby Wambach. To such an extent that, while Wambach's marriage to her long-time partner last year did make the headlines, it seemed that it was more because of who she was (one of the most visible female athletes in the country) not because she was marrying another woman. In other words, just another celebrity wedding in Hawaii.

Wambach said as much when she commented: "I can't speak for other people, but for me, I feel like gone are the days that you need to come out of a closet. I never felt like I was in a closet. I never did."

It certainly won't be tomorrow, and it may not be next year, but sooner or later, that day is coming for male athletes as well.

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