LUke Prokop of the Nashville Predators became the first active player under an NHL contract to come out as gay on Tuesday, just a month after Carl Nassib became the first NFL player to do so. For me, someone who has loved and admired sports for their entire life, this is historic and revolutionary news. But for the next generation of young sports fans and players, including my nieces and nephews, this is the new normal. Although it is only the beginning, I find it difficult to express how much joy the idea of that future gives me.
Society idolizes professional male athletes for their extraordinary toughness, masculinity and, perhaps most of all, for their bravery on the court, field, field, or court. How ironic is it that some of the toughest and bravest of us live in terror of being ourselves and losing a game / career that we spend countless years of our lives perfecting? Like me, many LGBTQ + male athletes outside of their sport have been terrified of living open and authentic lives. Choosing between loving yourself and loving your sport is an impossible situation that has formed an ultimatum and ultimately ruin for countless professional athletes before me for many years.
The fear of the imagined reaction to an openly LGBTQ + male professional athlete has been weaponized and used against us for many years. But whose fear is it? Is it teams that will prevent a talented young player from loving whom he wants to love? It can not be true. Didn’t Michael Sam discredit that thought when he came out before the 2014 NFL draft and the St. Louis Rams welcomed him? Or when Jason Collins came out gay and then signed with the Brooklyn Nets? Is it the reaction of the media that we should fear? My coming out as the first openly bisexual NFL active player was viewed as a celebration and covered worldwide with love and admiration by the mainstream press. The Guardian, the New York Times, ESPN, and the New York Post covered my story in hopes of a better future. And it’s not the leagues or the players themselves. Nassib’s departure as the first active gay soccer player received a great deal of support directly from the NFL, the NFL commissioner, league teams and players.
So what are we afraid of? And because? Many of the warnings given to athletes today were outdated notions of consequences and losses based on little or no real evidence or examples. Whether they were conservative fans who wanted soccer to be a place where they wouldn’t be called upon to complain about their notions of exclusion, or owners only focused on profits, the athletic community has finally overcome this age-old notion. Every male professional player who has come out to date has done their part to dismantle this fear-based ideology. Now that hatred and discrimination against LGBTQ + male athletes have lost their nameless and faceless bullies, we are on the cusp of the most open and progressive era of men’s sports in history.
The power of representation is often overlooked by those who have spent their entire lives seeing people who see, love, and believe like them. Politics, film, and television have been years ahead of men’s sports when it comes to including LGBTQ + people. To my younger self, sports seemed like the only place I didn’t belong because I didn’t see someone like me in it. I can count on one hand the number of professional male athletes, the only industry that has such abysmal numbers. If you want an example of how to be a league that is not only inclusive but empowers its athletes to be themselves and represent who they are and what they believe in, just look at our women’s sports leagues that have been setting the example and the foundations for years now.
When I was making my own decision to come out during my NFL career, the first thing I was looking for was representation, someone in my field who was like me in some way, shape, or form. It’s time for the youth of tomorrow to turn on a sporting event and see possibility and opportunity instead of homophobia and exclusion. My nephews are growing up and becoming more and more interested in sports. My hope is that for them a gay soccer player and a gay NHL player is the norm. That thought in itself is miraculous to me. The game changes forever, as do the teams, the fans, the players, and the times. It is difficult to categorize the recent departure of a pair of male professional players as the opening of the floodgates, but rarely in history has there been a first without being a second, a third and so on. What makes hope, courage and love the most powerful forces in the universe is their contagion. We have waited several lifetimes for this moment, for our LGBTQ + male athletes to be seen and honored for their extraordinary toughness, courage and truth on and off the field.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism