Waiting for the one

Nick Wass/AP Images

The gay-rights movement has an ally in Brendon Ayanbadejo.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 15 DC Issue. Subscribe today!

LOVE THE SINNER, hate the sin. Ten years ago, this phrase haunted me. I had just come out as gay to a number of my basketball teammates at the University of Colorado, some of whom were Christian, and they responded with those six words, believing them to be an expression of tolerance and acceptance. Love the sinner (in this case, me), hate the sin (in this case, my sexual orientation) became the vehicle that allowed them to transfer the burden of our star-crossed friendship to me.

That slogan was like a rock painted gold. At first, I counted my lucky stars: My friends were not abandoning me. But then, as the paint chipped away, I began to see how this philosophy played out day to day in the form of sympathetic hugs, prayer sessions on my behalf and awkward silences. Each interaction poisoned my mind, my self-confidence. I eventually walked away from those friendships, but the decision didn't feel voluntary. It felt as if I'd been ushered to the door.

I couldn't help thinking about that experience as I read the recent New York Times article in which Kevin McClatchy, former owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, revealed that he is gay. Because I know what moments like these will mean for the next generation of gay athletes and executives.

The McClatchy story is just the latest in a stream of gay-friendly news coming from sports. Earlier in September, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe became a straight-talking folk hero after writing a profanity-laced letter on Deadspin to Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Maryland delegate who had called upon Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to silence linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, an outspoken supporter of same-sex marriage. This summer, U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe came out as gay. In the spring, a handful of the NHL's most recognizable players supported the "You Can Play" campaign -- an organization founded by Patrick Burke (son of Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke) to promote equality and acceptance -- by appearing in a public service announcement. And a year ago, NBA executive Rick Welts, then with the Suns (he's now with the Warriors), announced he is gay. Welts said he wanted to break down the final social barrier in sports. "Anyone who's not ready for this needs to catch up," guard Steve Nash said.

Of course, there are still some embarrassing missteps along the path to greater understanding, as when Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was recently suspended for three games after writing a derogatory phrase about gays on his eyeblack. Make no mistake, though, the pendulum has swung. In years past, there was little conversation within the sports world about its crushingly homophobic culture, and anyone considering stepping out of the closet was routinely given reasons to stay inside. That's why it's so significant that the conversation is now being jump-started, again and again, by openly gay sports figures like McClatchy and Welts and Rapinoe and straight allies like Ayanbadejo and Kluwe.

The sports world itself -- not just the media and fans watching it -- is beginning to recognize the damage caused by its own repressive climate, and a growing number of straight athletes now see gay rights as an equal-rights issue. In fact, in The Mag's latest Confidential poll of athletes, 59 percent of pros say they support gay marriage. NHL players lead the way at 92 percent; the league was ahead of the curve on the issue thanks in part to the advocacy of Maple Leafs executive Brian Burke, whose son, Brendan, died in a car crash in 2010. Brendan was gay.

Still, as we move toward a more open environment, the hardest work is yet to be done. We're still missing the most important piece: a gay male athlete in a major team sport coming out. Not a retired player or a team president or an umpire or an owner but a high-profile athlete. Until now, gay male athletes, and the majority of their female counterparts, have quietly accepted the gold-painted rock, the locker room version of "don't ask, don't tell." In this way, they can keep the sponsorships and fans they fear they'll lose, even if that silence comes with a price. But the sports world isn't quite as suffocating as it used to be, not as scary for young gay athletes trying to find their way. Over the past year, and especially the past month, the terrain has become more navigable for whoever comes next.

We're ready for him.

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