The major sports leagues don't have the best reputation when it comes to gay players in the locker room, or gay slurs on the playing field, or much of anything with gay rights these days, really. But Kobe Bryant, in a sudden reversal for himself and perhaps a growing trend for stars in the notoriously conservative NBA, may have single-handedly changed that. In the early hours of Monday morning, in the shadow of the Grammys on Twitter, as all-star week began to bring the spotlight back to his league, the outspoken Laker chastised two fans for (presumably) using "you're gay" as an insult in at-replies to the newfound Twitter favorite. He then tweeted this:
That's a big step for Kobe Bryant. He hasn't always been this accepting and mature, as one of the fans in the Twitter conversation responded. Bryant once got in trouble for calling a referee a "f*cking fag" in the middle of a game in 2011, for which the league fined him $100,000. But this a new Kobe — and a new NBA, it would appear — and Bryant replied that this, in fact, was progress:
So, that's a pretty progressive stance on gay rights — or at least gay slurs — from one of the biggest stars in the NBA. It's also — sadly — one of the biggest supportive statements for the gay community from such a high-profile athlete in any of the four major sports. But it isn't the first step from the NBA on gay discrimination. It's not even the first big step in the last month:
At the very end of January, Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried released a video with One Colorado bragging about having two moms, and supporting gay marriage. "I support civil union, because it gives people -- gays and lesbians -- the right to make decisions on their own," he says. "If they want to get married and let them choose who they want to be with."
"Nobody can ever tell me I can't have two mothers, because I really do," Faried says.
Charles Barkley, the best commentator in sports, also made waves for supporting gay rights in a radio interview in 2011, revealing that he played with gay players during his basketball career:
“First of all, every player has played with gay guys. It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say: ‘Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.’ First of all, quit telling me what I think. I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play.”
Of course, Bryant's comments are coming in the shadow of the NFL's biggest mess-up with equality to date — San Francisco 49er backup cornerback Chris Culliver's ugly comments during Super Bowl media week. Culliver said a gay teammate wouldn't be welcomed in the locker room, and ignited a firestorm of media attention and criticism. His comments revealed a looming problem with the NFL and gay issues after some of Cullivers' teammates made some (very) questionable comments as that scandal unfolded. Culliver ended up playing terribly in the Super Bowl, and the NFL hasn't made much public progress since.
But Bryant deserves praise — and has already received some from the gay community, and more from his Twitter followers — for his about-face. Kobe recognizes he was once ignorant about the issue and acknowledges he was wrong, that he's learned from his mistakes. But also, and perhaps most importantly, he's coming out against using "you're gay" as an insult, which is exactly the kind of "locker room speak" that organizations like the You Can Play Project are trying to eliminate from sports. You Can Play is an organization that's working to destigmatize locker rooms and make them more accepting for the potential arrival of an openly gay male professional athlete. This is both a big and small step in that direction.