The tide is turning in the world of sports. An environment once steeped in homophobia now has an air of acceptance and tolerance. Companies that may have once shied away from an openly gay athlete are today willing to back him or her 110 percent. In fact, the first male athlete to come out as gay could command a huge payday.
Currently, there is no openly gay, active male athlete playing in one of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States. However, more and more professional athletes -- like former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe -- are willing to speak out in favor of equality.
Entire leagues are also moving toward tolerance. Last week, the National Hockey League (NHL) announced a gay rights initiative in partnership with the You Can Play Project. The National Football League (NFL) is currently meeting with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups to open a dialogue about discrimination.
The buck doesn't stop there, though. Athletic-wear giant Nike may want to sponsor the first openly gay, male athlete.
Back in 2011, before former Phoenix Suns executive Rick Welts publicly announced he was gay, he disclosed his sexual identity to NBA Commissioner David Stern and senior executives at Nike. Instead of abandoning him, Nike backed Welts and reportedly told him that the company's support extends to the first male athlete who wants to come out.
“They made it clear to me Nike would embrace it,” Welts told Bloomberg. “The player who does it, they’re going to be amazed at the additional opportunities that are put on the table, not the ones that are taken off.”
Communications strategist Bob Witeck isn't surprised by this. After an interview with Witeck, Bloomberg wrote the following:
[T]he first openly gay team-sport athlete -- provided he’s a recognizable name -- would earn millions in endorsements and speaking engagements from companies seeking to capture more of a U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adult population whose annual buying power he pegs at almost $800 billion.
Nike, with a brand value of $15.9 billion, ranks 26th on Forbes' list of the "World's Most Powerful Brands." Support from such a behemoth would surely help advance gay rights around the globe. Likewise, the move could help the brand, as well.
The Huffington Post reached out to Hudson Taylor, founder and executive director of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization that promotes tolerance in sports, for his opinion on the response an out, male athlete might garner.
"We have seen time and time again that diversity is a benefit," Taylor told HuffPost in an email on Monday. "It's a benefit in corporate America; it's a benefit in schools; and it's a benefit in sports. An athletic culture that welcomes and includes LGBT athletes will ultimately draw improved talent and create more unified and respectful team cultures."
"These ideas are resonating for the sports community at all levels, from the leagues to the players to the corporate sponsors. And perhaps most importantly, they are resonating for fans," he continued. "Though a player's decision to come out is intensely personal and something about which only he or she knows best, it is a promising time as the sports community welcomes those decisions and the corporate community incentivizes them."
Predictions about the potential clout for an openly gay, male athlete come on the heels of news that as many as four active athletes are planning to come out as gay in the near future.
Related on HuffPost:
Kalen Holmes, Executive Vice President of the Seattle-based coffee megabrand, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/25/starbucks-same-sex-marriage-washington-_n_1231047.html" target="_hplink">released a statement late last month</a> which reads in part: <blockquote>Starbucks is proud to join other leading Northwest employers in support of Washington State legislation recognizing marriage equality for same-sex couples ... This important legislation is aligned with Starbucks business practices and upholds our belief in the equal treatment of partners. It is core to who we are and what we value as a company. We are deeply dedicated to embracing diversity and treating one another with respect and dignity, and remain committed to providing an inclusive, supportive and safe work environment for all of our partners. We look forward to seeing this legislation enacted into law.</blockquote>
A statement on The Official Microsoft Blog titled "Marriage Equality in Washington State Would Be Good for Business" <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/21/microsoft-gay-marriage_n_1220800.html" target="_hplink">reads in part</a>: Marriage equality in Washington would put employers here on an equal footing with employers in the six other states that already recognize the committed relationships of same-sex couples - Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. This in turn will help us continue to compete for talent.
In late January Nike was among the 6 companies -- including Microsoft -- <a href="http://la.gopride.com/news/article.cfm/articleid/25521849/microsoft-nike-endorse-gay-marriage-in-washington" target="_hplink">who endorsed an effort to make Washington the seventh state to legalize gay marriage</a>. In a letter to Governor Chris Gregoire, the companies wrote: "We write you today to show the support of our respective companies for SB 6239 and HB 2516 recognizing marriage equality for same-sex couples." Washington state-based Vulcan, RealNetworks, Group Health Cooperative and Concur also signed the letter.
"Amazon is joining other Pacific Northwest companies, including Microsoft, Starbucks and Nike, in support of Washington state's marriage equality bills," <a href="http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/2017392956_amazon02.html" target="_hplink">Amazon said in a statement released</a> in early February by spokeswoman Mary Osako. "The spirit of these bills is consistent with our longstanding employment practices."
In 2008 Levi Strauss & Company filed an amicus brief with the California Supreme Court explaining the economic advantages of gay marriage. <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/27/business/media/27adco.html" target="_hplink">The New York Times notes</a> that the label "also signed on to sponsor a programming block on Logo, the gay cable channel owned by MTV Networks, and developed a marketing partnership with "Milk," the Focus Features movie about Harvey Milk, the gay civil rights leader."
<a href="http://www.americanapparel.net/legalizegay/" target="_hplink">From the company's website</a>: <blockquote>American Apparel believes that sexuality should be celebrated, not condemned. When California voters passed Prop 8 in 2008, we let our community know we would support whatever stand they wanted to take. American Apparel believes in freedom, expression and equality, things that are inherently condemned in the prohibition of gay marriage. After printing a few hundred Legalize Gay t-shirts for a rally near our factory in downtown Los Angeles, the company received thousands of requests from people all over the world who asked for us to expand it. With many of our employees and customers identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, we are a company that is vocal about our support for the protection of gay rights. Scores of our employees were on the frontlines of protests in cities across America, handing out hundreds of Legalize Gay t-shirts to supporters, and putting them in our store windows in protest of violence against gays and discriminatory court decisions. We also had a lot of fun at PRIDE rallies and celebrations. We've since given away over 50,000 of these shirts, run protest advertisements nationwide and even partnered with HRC for their enormous march on Washington.</blockquote>
In 2008 the company donated $100,000 in an effort to help defeat California's Proposition 8. <a href="http://news.cnet.com/8301-13579_3-10074793-37.html" target="_hplink">A message on Apple's "Hot News" site read in part:</a> <blockquote>"Apple was among the first California companies to offer equal rights and benefits to our employees' same-sex partners, and we strongly believe that a person's fundamental rights -- including the right to marry -- should not be affected by their sexual orientation. Apple views this as a civil rights issue, rather than just a political issue, and is therefore speaking out publicly against Proposition 8."</blockquote>
In 2008 Google <a href="http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2008/09/our-position-on-californias-no-on-8.html" target="_hplink">came out against Prop 8</a> with the following statement on their official blog: <blockquote>"As an Internet company, Google is an active participant in policy debates surrounding information access, technology and energy. Because our company has a great diversity of people and opinions -- Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, all religions and no religion, straight and gay -- we do not generally take a position on issues outside of our field, especially not social issues. So when Proposition 8 appeared on the California ballot, it was an unlikely question for Google to take an official company position on. However, while there are many objections to this proposition -- further government encroachment on personal lives, ambiguously written text -- it is the chilling and discriminatory effect of the proposition on many of our employees that brings Google to publicly oppose Proposition 8. While we respect the strongly-held beliefs that people have on both sides of this argument, we see this fundamentally as an issue of equality. We hope that California voters will vote no on Proposition 8 -- we should not eliminate anyone's fundamental rights, whatever their sexuality, to marry the person they love."</blockquote>
The home improvement super store drew the ire of anti-gay activists when it came out in support of gay rights -- including gay marriage. <a href="http://action.afa.net/item.aspx?id=2147496231" target="_hplink">The American Family Association called for a boycott</a> of the company in June, but Home Depot has remained committed to the cause. In October Home Depot spokesman Steve Holmes released a statement regarding the AFA boycott <a href="http://srph.it/noJrgo" target="_hplink">which read in part</a>, "Our response on this has been and continues to be that we respect the diversity of all people and maintain an inclusive culture."
The department store recently came under fire from The American Family Association for releasing a catalog featuring an image of two grooms perched atop a wedding cake. Macy's <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2012/02/01/416297/macys-under-attack-for-catalogue-cover-featuring-same-sex-couple-atop-wedding-cake/" target="_hplink">responded to the AFA saying</a>: "Macy's proudly serves a large and diverse marketplace, including customers with a wide range of needs and preferences. We strive to embrace customers of all ethnic backgrounds, ages, races, faith traditions, genders and lifestyles through the products we sell and the content of our marketing."