Wait of the world

AS 2011 GIVES WAY TO 2012, "don't ask, don't tell" has disappeared from the military, gay adoption is commonplace, Houston and Portland have gay mayors, and same-sex marriage is legal in half a dozen states and counting. Meanwhile, numerous athletes and coaches have told me they couldn't care less if a teammate were to come out, suggesting now is the time for openly gay players in mainstream team sports.

So why are we still waiting? It's been more than a decade since former No. 1 tennis player Amelie Mauresmo said she was gay, six years since WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes did the same. More recently, Portland State basketball coach Sherri Murrell, NBA team executive Rick Welts, Oregon State softball coach Kirk Walker and Boston Herald sports columnist Steve Buckley all disclosed their homosexuality while still active, to generally positive reaction. Yet no openness movement has followed. No active male athlete in any of the major leagues has followed the path of Mauresmo and Swoopes. It's a reminder that quite some time has passed since sports stood progressively ahead of the rest of the country, when Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey and Happy Chandler integrated baseball in 1947 -- before the military, hundreds of school districts and thousands of churches.

But as it did 65 years ago, sports can lead again by welcoming -- encouraging, in fact -- the arrival of male gay athletes into the mainstream, by fortifying individual courage with comprehensive support. The NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB have added sexual orientation protections to their CBAs. Unfortunately, David Stern, Gary Bettman, Roger Goodell and Bud Selig have yet to back that up by forcefully advocating for openly gay players in their sports, and that's a huge reason it hasn't happened.

The natural parallel to any change in America is the civil rights movement. Then, as now, it was inconceivable that society would be ready for such change, but the truth is that society is never ready. The real question is whether the major sports leagues are prepared to make us ready.

What does ready mean? It means having a "spouses section" instead of a "wives section" at the ballpark. It means signaling that gay players would be welcome to invite their significant others on the team charter during family road trips and postseason cruises. It means the leagues must ruthlessly enforce a zero-tolerance policy against discrimination and harassment, whether from fans, coaches or executives unfairly trading gay players. It means each commissioner committing his authority to crush dissent, just as Chandler did to the players who threatened to boycott Robinson.

It means educating players to separate sex from homosexuality so that they trust that on fourth and goal, a gay middle linebacker is thinking about a game-saving goal-line stand and nothing else -- that he wants to win a championship with as much desire and focus as, say, Ray Lewis.

It also requires a terrific leap of faith from the pioneering gay player, who must believe that his league, the owners, fans and American corporations, with whom millions of dollars in potential endorsements lie, will support him enough to make his honesty worth the risk.

This is where Stern, Bettman, Goodell and Selig most need to be heard -- to deliver the message that any open athlete will be protected, and to remind us that we've been here before. Just as some argue that gay players can't gain the respect of their teammates, there were those who felt that white players would never believe in their black teammates. We hear that gay players' sexuality would be a distraction in the locker room, just as black players supposedly weren't intelligent, disciplined and committed enough to satisfy whites. The objection that fans would savage an openly gay player is no different from the belief that whites did not want to sit in the same section as blacks (or live next door to them). For every concern that fundamentalists would not accept a gay player, so too was it believed that Southerners would never play alongside black players.

Such pessimistic notions once provided the ironclad foundation of segregation, and all were eventually discredited. But when it came to baseball, it took leaders leading -- Chandler and Rickey -- to prove to Robinson and America that the willpower to change existed. Now the moment belongs to Stern, Bettman, Goodell and Selig. If the commissioners make their stand, just as kids today find segregation inconceivable, future generations will wonder what the fuss about gay players was about.

Howard Bryant is a columnist for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.