Just months ago San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver said during Super Bowl week, “I don’t do the gays ... can’t be with that sweet stuff.”
He wasn’t alone. NBA superstar Kobe Bryant was once fined $100,000 for directing a gay slur at a referee. Former NBA star Tim Hardaway once proclaimed on radio, “I hate gay people…I’m homophobic.’’
Each of those athletes was chastised publicly for their remarks and each has since expressed regret. Bryant and Culliver both applauded NBA center Jason Collins Monday for becoming the first openly gay male athlete in one of the four major leagues.
Bryant tweeted out, “Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others.’’
Culliver said in a prepared statement that encouraging “individuals to be true to their authentic selves’’ can help “break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.’’
Whether that is good conscience or just good public relations, it’s clear sports is reassessing whether the locker room is a tolerant workplace. The NHL recently started a project to address homophobia in sports. The NBA is broadcasting public service announcements, featuring Grant Hill, Steve Nash and Jared Dudley, on the hurtfulness of gay slurs.
And NASCAR is sending the message no one should be held back from competing if they can drive a car.
When asked if an openly gay driver would have difficulty gaining acceptance from fans and fellow drivers, Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski replied, “I can’t speak for the fans, I can only speak for myself, but in this garage, if you can win, people will want to be a part of what you can do.’’
That view was echoed Monday by former Duke star Shane Battier, now with the reigning champion Miami Heat: “I only want one thing out of my teammate: a commitment to winning. Whether he is straight, gay, black, white, from Earth, or from Mars is immaterial. Just help us win.”
Collins received widespread support Monday on Twitter from numerous athletes. That in part may be about his persona as a player: Over a dozen NBA seasons he’s been the guy who sets hard screens and blocks out on rebounds. The Boston Celtics’ Doc Rivers called Collins one of the best teammates he’s ever coached.
But there’s a wider principle here, too. The NHL and hockey’s players association recently partnered on the “You Can Play’’ project. It’s a memorial to Brendan Burke, an openly gay college hockey player and son of former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke. Brendan Burke died in a 2010 car crash.
Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison was among those advocating the program: “There’s no reason for anyone’s sexuality, sex, ethnicity, anything, to exclude them from the game. Nothing should preclude you from playing.’’
Harrison was then asked if you can really predict how athletes would act, sharing a locker room with an openly gay teammate:
“Everybody’s experience is different (but) I don’t think it would be an adjustment at all. I can not honestly see it being a problem on your team, from my personal perspective. It’s another teammate.’’
Collins most recently played for the Washington Wizards, and several of his teammates there applauded his decision to go public, via Twitter Monday. Still, Collins is an unrestricted free agent this summer and his agent, Arn Tellem, cautioned Collins he might want to wait until after signing a new contract before coming out.
Collins thought otherwise, announcing on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated he’s openly gay. Tellem recalled for Sports Illustrated what Collins said to crystallize why he’s doing this.
“My basketball career is important, but the time has come to live my life,’’ Collins told Tellem. “As supportive as my family has been, I feel terribly alone and isolated.’’
Jim Utter, Chip Alexander, Tim Stevens and the Associated Press contributed.