By Simon Evans
(Reuters) - Times are changing for gays in American sports and National Basketball Association (NBA) player Jason Collins' decision to come out will encourage others in the top leagues to be open about their sexuality.
Two years ago, NBA great Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 for using an anti-gay slur against a referee and on Monday the five-time NBA champion applauded Collins for coming out as the first gay man in a major North American professional sports league.
Bryant's reaction illustrates, at the very least, the shift in what is considered acceptable language and behavior in U.S. professional sports, the days when insulting others by using a reference to homosexuality are coming to a close.
Indeed Collins's very public coming out via the front cover of Sports Illustrated magazine was greeted with a stream of supportive comments from within professional sports in the United States with only the slightest hint of any dissent.
Mike Wallace, a wide receiver with the National Football League's Miami Dolphins, tweeted his incomprehension that any male could prefer to be in a relationship with a man rather than a woman but was soon on the back foot.
"All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys, SMH (Shaking My Head)," Wallace tweeted before deleting the message and apologizing for any offense caused.
Wallace's reaction was not dissimilar to that of San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver who made headlines before this year's Super Bowl by saying he would not welcome a gay player into the team's locker room.
Culliver spent a pre-Super Bowl media session with scores of television cameras pointed in his face as he repeated his apology for an hour.
Whether it is a genuine change of attitude towards gays, reflected in several surveys of U.S. public attitudes, or a an understanding that homophobia is no longer acceptable, there is no doubt that professional sports are turning away from intolerance of gays.
In many ways, sports are simply catching up with so much of American society where homophobic comments are unacceptable in the workplace and no one would even think to ask if gays would be accepted in the office.
The question now is whether Collins's move - and the widespread support for him - will lead to athletes from other leagues following suit.
"I feel a movement coming," Robbie Rogers, the former U.S. national team soccer player who came out in February, tweeted on Monday shortly after Collins's announcement.
Gay rights and anti-discrimination groups certainly believe that Collins is making things easier for those who will come.
"All of us have huge admiration for what Jason is doing," said Patrick Burke, co-founder of equal rights advocacy group You Can Play.
"Jason's courage in stepping forward with his personal story will provide athletes and fans with a new role model."
Campaigners hope that Collins's move will help break down any fear that non-open gays may still have.
"We hope his actions inspire confidence in others who might have been afraid to live their lives openly until now - both on and off the court," said NOH8 Campaign co-founders Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley.
Collins, in his Sports Illustrated article on Monday, cited his frustration at not being able to participate openly in the debate about same-sex marriage and that is a reminder that the issue of homosexuality in the sports arena does not exist in a vacuum.
Sociologist Brian Powell at Indiana University Bloomington believes that what follows in sport now may follow a similar pattern to how the debate on marriage has unfolded.
"I don't think there will be a huge number of people coming out but there will be a probably a steady stream of people coming out, not unlike what happened last month when politicians came out in favor of same-sex marriage," he told Reuters.
"One day one person did and the next day another. I think the same will happen - it will be slower but there will be an increased number of players coming out."
The next generation of professional athletes in the United States are currently playing in college sports and Powell believes they will bring with them a fresh attitude.
"What I hear, with college athletes, is the real question for them is whether or not their team mates do their job. Competence and ability to play comes before anything else," he said.
"The more athletes publicly come out, the more other athletes are going to be comfortable with this, simply because they can then stop thinking of it in terms of the person's sexuality and focus on their performance."
(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue)
(This story was refiled to correct Culliver's position in the seventh paragraph)