When Outsports.com co-founder Cyd Zeigler called NFL teams in 2003 to ask about benefits for same-sex partners, he says he received two responses: A click on the other end or a shouting employee asking how he could possibly ask such a question. At that time, for the most part, chatter about an openly gay athlete in a major sport was nonexistent, and the mere thought seemed to rattle many fans and officials' minds.
They, of course, weren’t the first to shy away from the topic. But in the past few years before Jason Collins made his historical announcement that he is gay in a Sports Illustrated story Monday, it has been more and more a common discussion among sportswriters and fans about who the first male athlete in the four major pro sports would be. The discussion itself -- which reached a crescendo in the past few months thanks to statements from other pro players and reports that it was coming soon in the NFL -- is certainly a sign of the times and a measure of the rapidly changing discussion of homosexuality and sports.
"When I started Outsports in 1999, no one was talking about gay athletes," Zeigler remembers. "And no one wanted to."
Ten years after Zeigler's phone calls to NFL front offices, it was fairly unsurprising when Collins' announcement received positive responses from people ranging from Bill Clinton to Kobe Bryant. For the most part, there's an overwhelming reaction of respect for Collins bravery, with the only element of surprise being who took the plunge into the public eye as the first gay male in a major sport.
So when did the sports media and fans' conversations change? Different people who have played major parts in homosexuality sports becoming a major topic in the media increasingly during the past few years cite to different turning points.
For Zeigler, he sees a pivotal moment in the conversation coming in 2007 when former NBA player John Amaechi (at left) came out. "The media and fans really embraced him," he remembered, pointing to Celtics coach Doc Rivers as one outspoken supporter of Amaechi.
But it wasn't until another former player, Tim Hardaway, declared he "hated gays" on the radio in response to Amaechi’s announcement that Zeigler said he really knew something was changing in at least the tone of the coverage of LGBT athletes.
“The backlash (to Hardaway's comments) was the complete opposite (of the support for Amaechi); he was vilified for it," Zeigler said. "And that moment really changed this issue because you saw people embrace a homosexual and reject a homophobe and I think this is a stark contrast how those two instances were handled. I think that was powerful."
For NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth, he says he believes the start of change in the discussion came two years later, when NFL player Brendon Ayanbadejo published an op-ed in the Huffington Post and became an outspoken proponent of gay rights. "When I first heard him speaking out, I contacted him and told him he had my support," Foxworth said.
But for Foxworth, homophobic comments at this year's Super Bowl from 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver about how a theoretical gay player would not be welcome in the locker room sparked him to start speaking out. "I thought it was a misrepresentation of players as a whole," he said. His advocacy of equal rights, along with louder support in the past year from Ayanbadejo and players like Vikings punter Chris Kluwe pushed ahead the conversation of a player coming out publicly.
"When me and other players started to speak out and make it clear that (the locker room) wasn't this dangerous environment (for people to come out) I think other people started to take notice, I think that started the momentum,” he said.
Aaron McQuade, the spokesperson for GLAAD, agreed with Foxworth but said he thinks it goes further back a few years when the leagues started to proactively issue statements about gay equality and tolerance in sports.
"Every single one of these steps has created a little more space," he said. "The retired players coming out creates a little more space for the media to talk about it in a positive way. The media talking about it in a positive way creates space for (players like) Ayanbadejo to take public stances, which creates more space for the leagues to say 'yeah we support this', which creates more leeway for the players to agree with (pro-LGBT statements). And the more players speaking out, the more space there is for players like Jason ... and obviously Jason has just created a giant space."
Howard Bragman, vice chairman of the image-building company Reputation.com and chairman of Fifteen Minutes Public Relations, who orchestrated many athletes' (including Amaechi's) coming out, said it was just a combination of events that led to a change in society as a whole.
"I think everything changed this. I think society came to a place where it homophobia feels like racism now. It feels like something very dated," he said. He also pointed to Culliver's comments at the Super Bowl as a time when homophobia was suddenly a distraction -- not the possibility of someone coming out.
The SI story, said the magazine's executive editor Jon Wertheim, also gave Collins a chance for a moment of his own to change history -- in his way. "He wanted to control the message," he said. "He did not want to be outed, but he also wanted to tell his story in his terms."
Perhaps fittingly on the same day that Collins' story came out, the NFL said it sent around a memo to its teams detailing its policies on tolerance and equality in hiring processes and the workplace. The memo, the league said, was written before Collins' story was published and is unrelated to his announcement.