CBS Sports writer Mike Freeman reported this week that an anonymous current NFL player is considering coming out as gay before next season starts. At this point the story is a rumor, but it has piqued the sports world into discussing the possibility of a "gay Jackie Robinson."
The loaded term has its critics, but I believe the analogy is apt. We celebrate Jackie Robinson for being Major League Baseball’s first black player, but less-remembered is that his on-field success paved the way for further integration by smashing the theory of natural black inferiority. A gay athlete would feel the same pressure to prove himself physically worthy, which is why football, our most physically demanding major sport, is the ideal venue for the first out athlete.
Baseball’s color barrier perpetuated a white assumption of black physical inferiority. Jesse Owens famously defied this myth, but Robinson’s dazzling success against white players in a skill-based meritocracy was the death knell for the myth of racial inferiority.
For the first openly gay player, the challenge will be different. Gays are far more accepted in 2013 than minorities were in 1947, the year of Robinson’s debut. Only the most devoted homophobes would claim an intellectual inferiority — or even difference — between homosexual and straight people. LGBTQ equality has been a political success, evinced by the many gay "firsts" we've seen over the past few years. But stereotypes about the toughness and physical inferiority of homosexual men persist, which is the stigma a gay athlete would feel the most pressure to disprove.
That could be achieved best in the NFL. For one thing, the NFL’s astronomical popularity would heighten the player’s leverage of American sports' most coveted asset: a storyline. Consider the phenomenon of Tim Tebow. Basically a glorified special teams player, Tebow nonetheless possesses a captivating identity that ESPN-style sports coverage tends to vaunt above actual achievement. Even if the first gay player didn’t excel to Jackie Robinson’s level, his story alone would assure visibility nearly independent of his on-field success. If the first gay athlete were on an NHL team, the story would lose some luster.
Most importantly, the NFL is the ideal arena to prove toughness. Imagine a gay safety demolishing opposing receivers, or a gay running back doing this. There would predictably be jokes at first, but as we got more used to seeing it, the stigma would subside and a quieter indifference would replace it.
At this stage, indifference with homosexuality is the goal. The gay equality movement doesn’t have nearly as far to go as minorities did in 1947. The first out athlete doesn’t need to be as dominant of a player as Robinson; he just needs to offer casual observers a reason to relegate his sexual orientation to secondary concern behind more objective measures of merit. A player should come out to be personally comfortable, but his contribution to the political struggle will be judged on how willing the sports-viewing public is willing to embrace the idea that his sexual orientation is not the primary way to view someone.