The surprises in the Sean Avery story

It's hard to gauge who did more to advance the cause of legalizing gay marriage in the past week -- New York Rangers forward Sean Avery (the first pro athlete to publicly support New Yorkers for Marriage Equality), or the father-and-son sports agent team of Don and Todd Reynolds, whose swift attacks of Avery's stance caused a remarkable thing to happen. The Reynolds' reactions caused thousands of other people to step forward and out themselves as gay rights supporters, too, in a louder, longer show of support for Avery on Twitter and Facebook, radio and TV, in blogs and newspapers and sports fan message boards than Avery's appearance in a video advertisement for the marriage equality campaign might have generated on its own.

All of which led to a second surprise: Avery's support for gay rights isn't unique in male pro sports at all.

That last point is worth lingering on because it challenges an enduring canard that we've been told about gays and male sports for forever -- that revealing yourself as a supporter of gay rights is only slightly less risky than admitting you are gay.

It's been 30 years since Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were outed within months of each other in 1981 and then continued competing in pro tennis after acknowledging they are lesbians. And yet, male pro sports continue to be portrayed as one of last unbreachable bastions of homophobia. When people speak of how the gay movement still needs its own Jackie Robinson, it sometimes sounds as if what they really mean is that it will take a martyr, not just a sports hero with a social conscience.

But is that still true? Especially now that sports continue to present us with examples of how people such as the Reynoldses -- and not Avery -- face the bigger backlash for their views on gay rights?

This is a good time to start re-appraising all these things we've so long taken as "fact" -- including the conventional wisdom that it would be impossible for a gay male athlete to come out during his playing career, rather than just in retirement.

Many male athletes are coming out now at the high school and college levels. Gay male pro athletes have come out during their playing careers in other countries, too, in sports such as rugby and boxing and soccer. It just hasn't happened in America, at least not in the high profile pro sports.

But look around. The intolerance was cracking even before Avery appeared in the New Yorkers for Marriage Equality Campaign, which is run by the nonprofit Human Rights Campaign, and said, "I treat everyone the way that I expect to be treated, and that includes marriage." Change had taken hold even before the Reynoldses created a firestorm with their responses. Todd Reynolds tweeted, "Very sad to see Sean Avery's support of same-gender 'marriage.' Legal or not, it will always be wrong." And his father, Don, went further. He told The National Post of Canada, "The majority, I think, of Canadians would say that they don't agree with gay marriage -- that man and woman were created to be married, not man and man or man and horse, you know?"

The bestiality reference has been particularly pounced upon. So was the elder Reynolds' mangling of the facts. Gays have been getting legally married in Canada since 2005. The same is true in most industrialized nations around the world.

Neither of the Reynolds has apologized. And they're entitled to their opinions.

But in the last few weeks alone, Kobe Bryant did apologize for using a three-letter gay slur in reference to a referee during the playoffs, even before the NBA fined him $100,000; and Major League Baseball suspended Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell for allegedly menacing a fan and his two daughters at a San Francisco Giants game with a bat while making some homophobic remarks. (McDowell got two weeks without pay; he's lucky he didn't lose his job.)

On Wednesday, Damien Goddard, a Toronto-based sportscaster on RogersSportsnet, was fired by the company for tweeting, "I completely and whole-heartedly support Todd Reynolds and his support for the traditional and TRUE meaning of marriage."

Phoenix Suns players Grant Hill and Jared Dudley filmed public service commercials that began running last month against the bullying of gay teens. Peter Vidmar resigned as chef de mission for the U.S. Olympic Committee recently after it was revealed he had backed anti-gay marriage initiatives in the past. Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita is a supporter of gay rights, and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has backed the push to legalize gay marriage in Maryland even more actively than Avery has in New York. Ayanbadejo, who is bi-racial, has noted that much of what people say now to condemn gay marriage resembles the language people used to argue against interracial marriage in the 1960s.

"To me, the issue is the same," Ayanbadejo told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" on Tuesday, noting discrimination against any special group has usually fallen on the wrong side of history. "It's barbaric," Ayanbadejo said.

Avery is the latest pro athlete to speak out, but he's not even the first big name in hockey to step up for gay rights. Toronto general manager and noted tough guy Brian Burke and his son, Patrick, an NHL scout, have been active in gay rights issues since Brian's other son Brendan Burke came out as gay in a 2009 ESPN.com column while he was still an athlete and then student manager at Miami of Ohio. The Burkes have continued their work even though Brendan was killed in a car accident a few months later. Brian Burke marched in last year's Toronto gay pride parade. He's spoken candidly and movingly of the fears he had once he found out he was the parent of a gay child, and why he backed his son from the outset publicly.

Patrick Burke still works frequently with coaches and players and teams at all levels on how to handle having gay athletes in their midst. What's the common denominator or biggest hurdle? "Ignorance," he said this week.

Avery is a particularly interesting messenger to advance a gay cause -- or any cause, for that matter -- because he annually ranks atop any player or fan survey of the most disliked people in hockey. He's an on-ice instigator, a frequent cheap-shot artist, a man who was once suspended six games by the NHL for saying some tasteless things about a former girlfriend who began dating another player. During his Rangers career, he's also received a great deal of attention (and a good bit of mocking) for hanging out with A-list celebrities, frequenting Manhattan's annual Fashion Week shows and hipster clubs, doing an offseason internship at Vogue magazine at the knee of Anna Wintour, and fancying himself so much of a renaissance man that he once said, "I'd hang myself if I had to talk sports all the time."

One of the funnier refrains about Avery's gay-marriage stance is a lot of sports fans have said, "Damn. Does this mean I now have to like Sean Avery?"

Avery told The New York Times this week that he agreed to the marriage equality ad because "the places I've played and lived the longest have been in West Hollywood, Calif., when I played for the L.A. Kings, and when I moved to New York, I lived in Chelsea for the first four years. I certainly have been surrounded by the gay community. And living in New York and when you live in L.A., you certainly have a lot of gay friends."

Still, the oft-repeated idea that Avery's vast experience as a professional jerk leaves him uniquely suited to absorb whatever criticism or barbs come his way is another canard that deserves to die.

You don't need a superhuman threshold for ostracism to support gay rights anymore -- just your average, run-of-the-mill human being who thinks gays deserve the same rights and protections as anyone else. It doesn't take being a martyr or some larger-than-life hero, either -- it just takes being someone who agrees that what gays are asking for are basic human rights and not "special rights," a term gay-rights opponents conjured up to hijack the argument.

Reasonable people can debate personal politics or choices people make. But the one thing many folks can't abide -- the one juncture where even people who never considered themselves gay rights supporters draw the line and engage -- is when they see another human being discriminated against, especially someone they personally know. Decency does trump politics.

Current polls -- here's one; here's another -- show for the first time that a majority of Americans support gay marriage. And the sports world Avery inherited is light years different than the one Navratilova knew.

"I agree with Sean Avery and his comments on the same-sex marriage issue … If two people are happy together, let them be happy," Phoenix Coyotes enforcer Paul Bissonnette tweeted -- then later added he suddenly found himself invited to so many same-sex weddings that he felt compelled to be clear his personal criterion for attending included "must have an open bar."

Brian Ellner, coordinator of the HRC's marriage equality campaign in New York, says the reason he approached Avery to film the 30-second ad is that Avery made big news in the gay community earlier this year when he told Chris Stevenson of Canada's Sun newspaper chain that, "If there's a kid in Canada or wherever who is playing and really loves the game and wants to keep playing but he's worried about coming out, I'd tell him to pick up the phone and call [NHLPA executive director] Donald Fehr and tell him to book me a [plane] ticket.

"I'll stand beside him in the dressing room while he tells his teammates he is gay. Maybe if Sean Avery is there, they would have less of a problem with it."

Avery was right -- it would help. He has helped mightily -- even if Patrick Burke, like so many others who back Avery's live-and-let-love message, has joked: "I never thought I'd be on the same side as Sean Avery on anything."

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.