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It Will Take 'Time, Tolerance' For Openly-Gay Players To Transition In Pro Sports

The issue of openly-gay athletes is being discussed in both the NBA and the NFL right now.

Veteran NBA player Jason Collins has signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets, nearly a year after announcing he was gay. And NFL draft hopeful Michael Sam finished participating in the annual scouting combine this week after recently coming out.

KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says it’s going to take time, tolerance and acceptance from both sides of the issue for the transition to happen.Veteran Collins Paves The WayIn NBA

NBA "journeyman" Jason Collins announced in Sports Illustrated last April that he was gay. He's 35 years old. Art says his career was in decline before he came out.

"It wasn't likely that he was going to return but an emergency provided the opening," Art said.

The Brooklyn Nets signed Collins to a 10-day contract last weekend to deal with a manpower shortage. Art says Collins, the Nets and the NBA are handling the issue well. 

"Jason Collins is a former teammate of the head coach of the Nets, Jason Kidd. They're friends. Jason also has friends on the team, so the transition was made easy. No one knows if he's going to be extended beyond the 10-day contract but, nevertheless, the breakthrough was made," Art said.

NFL Draft Hopeful Sam Handling Gay Issue 'Admirably'

Michael Sam, college football star at Missouri and SEC Defensive Player of the Year, announced he was gay earlier this month. He participated in the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, IN, last week and this week.

"He wasn't nearly as good as the drills and the testing," Art said. "His numbers weren't suggestive of a great athlete. He was forecasted to be a mid-to-late round draft pick in the NFL draft in May and he did nothing to advance his case on the field. But I think in handling spontaneous questions from the media and being a well-spoken guy about social issues as well as football issues, he handled himself admirably."

Transition To Openly Gay Athletes 'Slow Process'

Art agrees with those who say professional sports is behind the times on this issue. But he says making the transition "is a big deal."

"These are the first. And I don't think you can overemphasize the significance of it," he said. "Whether it's Susan (B.) Anthony or Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali, these are social trailblazers and you pay attention to the first time because there's only one first time."

Art believes there are going to be some difficulties with this transition, but says they aren't going to be very well articulated. "I think there are a lot of athletes who are very devoted to their faith who are going to have trouble having a cultural value imposed upon them they do not share. They don't dare say it, but I do believe that the First Amendment allows them to speak up. But they're not going to because they understand that they'll be politically incorrect," Art said.

'Evolution In Behavior'

Art says it's going to take movement on both sides of the issue to make it work.

"The people of faith who are bothered by this are going to have to learn acceptance. And, I think, people who are advocates for gay rights are going to have to learn tolerance by people who are troubled by this," he said. "My only concern is where is that resentment going to bubble up. It's going to take very sophisticated and patient engagement on this issue by all parties to try to smooth it out."

"Don't be surprised if it gets difficult at times," Art continued. "But anything worth having, I suppose, is difficult. And we're going to have to be patient with sports as they work their way through this breakthrough event."


You can find Art Thiel's work at Sportspress Northwestand

Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.
Art Thiel is a co-founder and writer for the rising sports website Sportspress Northwest. In 2003 Thiel wrote the definitive book about the Seattle Mariners, “Out of Left Field,” which became a regional bestseller. In 2009, along with Steve Rudman and KJR 950 afternoon host Mike Gastineau, Thiel authored “The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists,” a cross between and Mad Magazine that has become mandatory reading for any sports fan who has an indoor bathroom.