Will The Supreme Court's Marriage Equality Ruling Impact Sports?

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that same-sex marriage is constitutional, causing widespread celebration in the LGBT community. But will that court decision have an impact in sports? AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

I used to think this wouldn't matter so much.

Marriage equality seemed the equivalent of being approved for a visa to a country I wasn't sure I'd visit. Although I loved the thought of others finally getting hitched, and then having those vows recognized in any state across the country, I had no imminent plan to do the same.

But then on Friday morning, the Supreme Court handed down its decision, the Twitter-sphere rejoiced and I realized I was totally wrong: This wasn't like being granted a visa to some foreign country.

This was like finally being granted one to my own.

Suddenly, whether or not someone gets married wasn't actually the point of the whole thing. The point was recognizing love. The point was no longer just tolerating differences, but actually celebrating them.

I also initially thought the ruling wouldn't make much difference in the sports world, either. After all, athletes and coaches remain closeted for plenty of reasons, and not having the right to marry in all 50 states never seemed high on the list. Sure, reading social media on Friday was like looking at sunlight after rain, rainbows everywhere, but the issues facing gay athletes are insidious (think: sexism, hyper-masculinity, etc.), and a trending hashtag, one cyber group hug, can't undo a culture hundreds of years in the making.

Truth is, at the collegiate and professional level, progress on LGBT issues has somewhat stalled -- specifically with the 'G' piece of that acronym. Football player Michael Sam came out before the 2014 NFL draft, but then failed to make a roster, leaving in his wake more questions than answers: Did coming out affect his draft stock? Was the NFL just not ready? NBA veteran center Jason Collins came out that same year, but he played only half a season with the Brooklyn Nets. Neither moment was as watershed as some had hoped: no other major athletes followed through the now-opened door.

For all the talk of steady improvement, there is not currently an active gay male athlete in any of the four major sports leagues. (Of course, Robbie Rogers is still representing in the MLS.) If you weren't paying close attention you might think it's been a steady march forward.

It hasn't been.

Progress has certainly been made -- among professional female athletes, especially (See: Wambach, Abby; Griner, Brittney; Rapinoe, Megan). And that space seemed particularly welcoming on Friday, when almost the entire U.S. women's national team (see here and here) chimed in about marriage equality before the team's World Cup match against China. Also, the conversation around intersex and trans athletes was almost nonexistent a few years ago. Today, the sports world is taking the first small steps toward having that conversation. Former big leaguer Billy Bean is doing diversity work for Major League Baseball, and inclusion is still a major buzzword in sports.

And yet, as is usually the case, despite all this good work, the most eyeballs land on men's sports, on male athletes. And that space is still looking for its ambassador, or its ambassadors, for its star player who will change the game, or for the group of guys who will carry the burden together.

So the question, then, becomes: Will marriage equality help jump-start the stalled LGBT movement in sports?

The answer to that: a tentative yes.

Right now, one of the biggest obstacles to a male athlete coming out publicly is the fact so few male athletes -- and none in the four major sports -- are out publicly. Think of it like this: being a gay athlete today requires you to carry an extra burden. You'll be inundated with media attention, asked for your opinion when anything "gay" happens and asked to serve as a spokesperson in various capacities. The fewer out athletes, the heavier that burden is. Imagine carrying a table -- alone. But as athletes come out, that burden becomes less and less until, someday, it'll be more like just placing a hand under the table and moving it along, the weight negligible because so many are helping.

And then perhaps, one day, the table will no longer exist at all.

Of course, we're not there yet. Not even close.

What we have right now is marriage equality, which leapfrogs sports in a number of ways -- for many athletes, it might seem like something more about life after sports than their daily existence.

But the decision does affect it in a couple of other ways. First, there are hundreds of gay athletes -- many of them open to their teammates -- who just lost their reason (or, their excuse) to postpone marriage to their partners. Sports is a transient business, and the hassle of having a union valid in one state, but not another, was a valid reason to avoid marriage entirely. This Supreme Court decision doesn't mean that hundreds of athletes will now share their truths publicly. It means only that more private weddings will happen over the next couple of years, weddings attended by teammates, and that will help change minds within sports.

The quickest way to break down prejudice in sports: become teammates with someone marginalized.

Thousands of athletes just witnessed an outpouring of support for marriage equality. And there are likely some who first believed the whole thing wouldn't apply to them.

But it does. And it will.

And it might just help the LGBT movement in sports turn a corner.