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Pro leagues planning for gay athletes

Although history will look back on April 29, 2013, as the day everything changed, as the day Jason Collins stepped forward and became the first openly gay male athlete in a major American team sport, the reality is that change began long before Monday's headline-grabbing news.

For the past few weeks, months and, in some cases, years, the major U.S. sports leagues have been preparing for just this moment. It was never a matter of if, but when.

They were paying attention two years ago when Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts came out in a story in The New York Times. They noticed in February, when former Columbus Crew and U.S. national team soccer player Robbie Rogers announced that he was gay. And they were listening in April when former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo told The Baltimore Sun that he knew of four current NFL players who were considering coming forward.

So it should be no surprise that, on Monday, before Collins' announcement, the NFL coincidentally sent a memo to all 32 teams outlining the league's sexual orientation anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. They were guidelines that had been discussed at the league's most recent annual meeting.

In November 2011, with the Major League Baseball Players Association, MLB added nondiscrimination practices based on sexual orientation to its collective bargaining agreement.

In 2012, MLS launched its "Don't Cross the Line" campaign, targeted at eliminating discrimination of any kind, including homophobia, in sport.

And in April, the NHL announced its partnership with You Can Play, an advocacy organization run by Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke, son of former Toronto GM Brian Burke. You Can Play works with teams, organizations and athletes to ensure equality and respect for all athletes regardless of sexual orientation.

So what changed?

"I think we realized we were behind," Patrick Burke said. "Athletes are tired of being seen as meathead jocks and bullies who hate gay people. You hear all this talk about how sports is awful and unfriendly, yet I'm getting calls from athletes every week: 'My brother is gay or I have a friend who is gay. How can I help?'"

Burke began the organization in 2012 as a tribute to his brother Brendan, who came out in 2009 and died in a car accident a year later. In its one year of existence, You Can Play has drastically changed the NHL culture, Burke said. The situation has gone from sexual orientation being something no one discussed to athletes now volunteering to be a part of the league's "You Can Play" public service announcements.

JoAnn Neale, executive vice president for MLS who oversees the MLS Works community outreach initiative, has seen a similar response to the league's athlete-driven "Don't Cross the Line" campaign. Rogers' coming out has only helped the cause.

"The support we've received from our players and clubs since we launched our 'Don't Cross The Line' platform has been tremendous," Neale said. "When Robbie came out, we were really proud of the response and outpouring of support from the MLS and soccer community."

Coincidentally, Burke said, You Can Play is scheduled to meet with MLS officials next week to discuss a formal partnership. Conversations with other sports leagues are ongoing.

Burke believes there are two key things every league should do to create an environment in which a gay athlete can feel welcome and his teammates can feel comfortable. One is to educate athletes better. Answer their questions. Give them the resources, be it at a rookie symposium or a handout distributed to players, so they can better understand the right and wrong way to respond to a gay teammate on the field and in the media.

Second, Burke said, is to take a public stand. Whatever your organization is comfortable with. Maybe it's NBA commissioner David Stern saying on Monday that he was proud Collins had "assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue." Or maybe it's MLS commissioner Don Garber, after Rogers came forward, tweeting, "I am proud to be part of a sport that has been so supportive of @robbierogers. I admire his courage and hope he stays involved in the game."

In Goodell's memo Monday to all 32 NFL teams, the commissioner said simply, "Discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation is not consistent with our values and is unacceptable in the National Football League."

But few statements speak louder, Burke believes, than the NHL's contract with You Can Play.

"When you talk to an athlete who is gay, they talk about that little tiny seed of doubt," Burke said. "They are 99.9 percent sure their teammates are going to support them. But it's that one-tenth of a percent that is so scary that it can overwhelm the rest. With the NHL, I can show you a hard document that says the NHL and the NHLPA will support you 100 percent. It's in writing. And that means a lot."

Brian McCarthy, the NFL's senior vice president for corporate communications, said the league had been working on creating its memo for several weeks. The memo outlined objectives and expectations as well as providing examples of types of harassment and discrimination and explaining what to do to report improper conduct.

Included in the NFL memo were examples of inappropriate questions coaches, general managers and others responsible for evaluating players should not ask in any interview, including "Do you like women or men?" or "How well do you do with the ladies?"

McCarthy said the league is prepared for an active player to come out and will work with whatever team the player is on to ensure the player is not discriminated against. The league also would work with team security personnel and "take any steps necessary in terms of any inappropriate fan reaction," McCarthy said, including inappropriate signs in stadiums or "any type of social media incidents or threats."

"If there's inappropriate behaving that interferes with the enjoyment of the game for anyone at the stadium, we have the ability to eject a fan," McCarthy said. "And that's in a broad context of the fan code of conduct."

McCarthy noted that the league has a "long history" of working with PFLAG (Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and recently met with representatives of GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders), Athlete Ally and You Can Play.

MLB spokesman Pat Courtney noted the league's longtime relationship with GLAD, writing in an email, "As the sport of Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball believes in equality and acceptance for all, and we hope that Jason Collins' announcement serves as yet another example on how to live openly and proudly."

On Tuesday, Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR vice president of public affairs and multicultural development, said promoting diversity and inclusion is one of NASCAR's top initiatives. He said that every employee goes through diversity and inclusion training and that the code of conduct in its rulebook "isn't just a statement. It embodies our values."

"We want our athletes and our sport to look like America, and exclusion or intolerance of any kind, whether behind the wheel, on pit road or in the garage, is not part of that formula," Jadotte said.

In addition to all the training, educating and handouts, athletes undoubtedly will find themselves self-policing in cases of harassment and discrimination stemming from banter in the locker room or on the field. Some players will stand up for their teammates and not tolerate offensive language or inappropriate slang. The goal, Burke said, isn't to change locker-room culture completely but rather to understand the line.

"I don't want the locker room to be some big, hugging, kumbayah type place," he said. "It's always going to be politically incorrect. That's just the way it is. Jason Collins is going to be made fun of for being gay. That's a good thing. What we have to establish is being careful throwing around terms when you don't know who is in your locker room. We have closeted gay players in a way we don't have closeted other types of minorities. And when you use slurs like, 'That's so gay' or 'Don't be a fag,' all the gay athlete hears is, 'Well, I can't come out to him.'"

Such a stand-up moment took place in an MLS match in April when San Jose's Alan Gordon used a homophobic slur directed toward Portland's Will Johnson. Johnson responded by grinning at Gordon, lifting three fingers and telling Gordon he hoped he would enjoy his three-game suspension. Johnson then won the match on a free kick.

Collins' announcement could be the beginning of a movement among gay athletes to come out. In three years, Burke predicted, this country will look back and be amazed that this was even a story.

"The person I'm happiest for is Jason," Burke said. "A lot of activists and members of the sports community and LGBT community are talking about how great this is and how much it will help those of us who do advocacy work. And they're right. But I just can't express how happy I am for the feeling Jason must have last night going to sleep. I couldn't be more proud of him."

ESPN.com NFL writer Ashley Fox, NASCAR writer David Newton and baseball writer Jerry Crasnick contributed to this report.