Viewpoint: Are male pro sports ready for gay athletes?

In 2011, a member of the Phoenix Suns NBA basketball team made history, and it wasn’t for points scored or championships claimed. Team president and CEO Rick Welts, then 58 years old, gathered together his friends, family and a reporter, and announced to them that he was gay.

Now, in today’s world, this wouldn’t appear to be that big of deal. Gone are the days of whispering behind Jodie Foster’s or Jim Parsons’ backs. In the last 5-10 years, many celebrities and public figures have openly discussed their sexuality, and it’s been just fine. Those who rail against them as sinners or immoral what-have-yous are not nearly as hearkened to as they once were. For most forward-minded American individuals (especially those who are college-aged), a person’s sexuality is a personal matter, and choosing to disclose that information should do nothing to harm their professional careers, nor has it proven to be harmful.

But what Welts did was open a door for discussion that had previously been shut. Not just shut, but sealed tight with Super Glue. Welts sparked the question of what’s going to happen when the first male professional athlete comes out.

This question came to the foreground again this week as National Football League hopefuls gathered together in gyms and were poked, prodded, pinched and measured for the NFL combine (the league’s invitational, used as a tool to gauge information on potential draft picks and player abilities). As part of these combine visits, teams were able to interview potential professional players.

Unfortunately, three or four players mentioned that teams discussed their sexuality in these interviews. Given the events of the last month surrounding Notre Dame Heisman candidate and catfish victim(?) Manti Te’o, teams seem to be more interested in assessing players’ sexuality and personal lives. The questions are usually posed in a casual manner: “So, if we draft you, would you be bringing a wife along? Girlfriend? Do you like girls? (Ha, ha, ha, chuckle chuckle.) Just teasing you.”

It is a federal law that interviewers are not allowed to bring up a prospective employee’s sexuality, marital status or relationship status in an interview. This doesn’t just apply to corporations, banks and school districts. It also applies to professional football teams.

But the good old boys sweep these questions under the rug, labeling them “good-natured teasing” or “boys being boys.” They say they’re only worried about introducing a foreign element to the locker room. They say the press would be too much to handle. They say a lot of things.

Frankly, the antiquated notion that an openly gay athlete would disrupt team chemistry is an idea that needs to die. Team employees and fans need to get over it. Gay athletes aren’t entering the world of sports simply as an excuse to prowl around locker rooms, or to spend extra time in the showers. They are people, just like the rest of us, and their sexuality does not make them deviants.

And for those same good old boys who worry about openly gay athletes affecting camaraderie, they need to look to their younger athletes as examples. Most of these sportsmen grew up in a different generation — a more tolerant generation — that hopefully will be at the forefront of accepting athletes for what they do on the field, and not what they do in the privacy of their own homes. Some of them may even be gay themselves. In fact, if you go by semi-reliable statistics, at least 3 percent of them are gay — at least 3 percent — and are probably waiting for these old guys asking the bigoted questions to retire and let the world of sports catch up with the rest of society.