Pac-12 voices support for gay athletes

PHOENIX -- Worldviews are regional. Your thoughts on a subject are undoubtedly influenced by where you are from and the people who raised you and your lifelong associations. That can be good news and bad news. And, of course, it can get complicated.

In the case of NBA player Jason Collins becoming the first active, openly gay player in one of the four major U.S. pro sports leagues, it's not surprising that the message from the Pac-12 is one of support, and not just because Collins is a former Stanford star and therefore one of the conference's own.

"Our schools consider themselves progressive and believe strongly in equality," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. "Those are very important principles that our schools stand for. That’s one of the great things about sports. Athletes can be role models for society. Sport is so much about merit-based. People come from different socio-economic backgrounds, racial backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, and, on the sporting field or in the arena, those differences don’t matter. It’s being part of a team. And in an individual sport, it’s about performance. Sport is a great leveler. I think in this case, I hope what Jason Collins has done is yet another example of sport providing a path forward for society to have a civil discourse and talk openly about these issues and differences in society. I think it’s a great role sports can play."

Of course, in the framework of college football, the Pac-12 is different. For one, it's mostly urban, with schools based in metropolises such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Phoenix. City folk tend to be more cosmopolitan. Further, the conference's college towns, notably Boulder and Eugene, tend to lean strongly progressive.

For lack of a better way to describe it, the Pac-12 is bluer than a lot of other conferences.

Or is that just more parochial thinking?

"I think it’s not just the West Coast," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "It’s the younger generation. They have grown up in a different world than we have. The world is different now. Us older folks expect some form of Armageddon. Whereas the younger people, it’s like ‘OK, what’s next?’ This is the generation that grew up with TV and movies addressing homosexuality. It’s not as big a deal to them as it is to us. We think something crazy is going to happen. The kids are like, ‘Yeah, whatever. That’s not who I am, but that’s who he is. OK. No problem. Can he shoot free throws? Can he play with his back to the basket?’ That’s what they care about."

That said, the Pac-12 blog is unaware of any conference football player who is openly gay. The likelihood is high that several players are and therefore are operating as Collins did during his college career, feeling forced to keep their orientation a secret from coaches and teammates.

There's a reason this is a big story. Again: Collins is the first active, openly gay player in one of the four major U.S. pro sports leagues. You also can throw in major college football and men's basketball.

The notion of progress is that one day this won't be a major story. We are not yet at that point.

Although the reaction to Collins' announcement has been strongly positive across the country, reflecting a national trend toward tolerance, there are plenty of folks who see things differently. Scott seemed less comfortable when asked whether the Pac-12 would take direct action if someone spoke out against homosexuality.

"I guess I’d have to look specifically at our rule -- I don’t’ know off the top of my head what rule that would fall under," he said. "But I would put it in the bucket of other things. If something were said in any discriminatory way or biased way that was inconsistent with the values that the conference stands for, it might be something we’d look at. But I wouldn’t limit it to this issue. To me, it belongs in a broader basket."

The message from Pac-12 coaches and administrators, though, seemed to be of one voice, even if long-held personal opinions were being challenged by Collins' announcement. There will be more Jason Collinses. Tolerance is the future.

"That’s where we should be as a society," Washington athletic director Scott Woodward said. "Those are obvious things to us as an athletic department and to us as an academic and educational community. We’ve always felt that way. [The Collins story] is a huge deal, but for us, if it happened to us, we wouldn’t be rolling around shocked. We’d be like, ‘OK.’"