LONDON, UK — Among the messages of support NBA pro Jason Collins received this week after becoming the first US male athlete on a major professional team to publicly come out as gay was this tweet from Wales.
“Hope that @jasoncollins34 life is easier and fulfilled now,” tweeted former Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas. “I know mine was. I wish you all the happiness I found in life. Honesty is key.”
In 2009, Thomas — a tattooed, 6-foot-3-inch powerhouse widely regarded as one of the greatest Welsh rugby players of all time — publicly confirmed that he was gay. At the time, he was the most high-profile male athlete on a team sport to do so anywhere in the world.
Collins’ announcement this week marked a historic moment in American sports. In the UK and Europe, it was a reminder of how things have changed for gay athletes — and how far there is to go before such a story is no longer international news.
Like Collins, Thomas made his coming out announcement near the end of his playing career. After what he described as 20 years of torment over his secret life, he has said that he was overwhelmed by the positive response from teammates and fans.
Interviewed by Sports Illustrated in 2010, Thomas seemed shocked that the US hadn’t yet gotten to the point where a gay male athlete felt comfortable publicly acknowledging his sexuality.
“You come to this tiny village in this tiny country and tell me that I'm the only gay man in a major team sport who's out of the closet? All the diversity in America, and no one there has done this?” he told writer Gary Smith.
Thomas’ announcement did not exactly throw open the closet doors for homosexual athletes across Europe. The next major announcement came from Swedish professional soccer player Anton Hysen, who came out in 2011, as did English cricketer Steven Davies.
Donal Og Cusack, a star in the Irish sport of hurling, mentioned that he was gay in an autobiography published two months before Thomas went public. The revelation made international headlines.
“Maybe it’s an illustration of the journey sport needs to travel,” he told the BBC.
Given the global audience of US team sports, the stakes and the pressure surrounding such a deeply personal revelation are even higher.
“American professional athletes have the world watching them,” said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of the website OutSports.com. “People have more to lose in coming out. It’s just a bigger stage. English cricket’s not on par with the NBA.”
“The only European sport that you can compare it to would be soccer,” he added.
Indeed, in the UK’s most popular sport, the type of acceptance that gay athletes such as Collins and Thomas have found still seems a long way off.
Only two active players in the history of UK professional football (as soccer’s known here) have publicly said they were gay. Justin Fashanu, an English footballer who was also the first black player to command a 1 million pound ($1.56 million) transfer fee, came out in a media interview 12 years into his pro career in 1990.
Crowds and former colleagues abused him, his brother publicly condemned him and his playing deteriorated. Fashanu hung himself in a London garage in 1998 at the age of 37. He was the last man in UK soccer to come out until Robbie Rogers of Leeds announced he was gay in February — and then immediately retired from the sport.
"The NBA is light years ahead of football. There is no doubt about that," former NBA player John Amaechi told The Associated Press this week. Amaechi, an Englishman, disclosed that he was gay in 2007 after retiring from basketball, becoming the first former NBA player to do so.
“You are better off being the kind of football player who bites like a 5-year-old than a gay player in football,” he said, referring to Liverpool forward Luis Suarez’s mandibular attack on an opposing player last month. “One would get you less ridicule from the powers that be. It's shocking to me."
In the months before Collins came out, several US sportswriters and commentators said there was a sense that the time for the first openly gay athlete had come, and that such an announcement was imminent. There’s no similar sense in soccer, where crowds can be vicious and anti-gay slurs are often part of their chants.
“Unfortunately, homophobia among fans, stewards and players remains a serious problem in football, and while that’s the case it’s likely that gay players will remain unwilling to be open about their whole lives,” Andy Wasley of LGBT organization Stonewall said.
The gay rights organization has been working with soccer’s governing bodies in England and Wales to combat homophobia in the sport.
Thomas retired from rugby in 2011. He became an ambassador for the youth counseling service ChildLine, and has appeared on the UK versions of the reality shows “Big Brother” and “Dancing on Ice.”
A film about his life is in the works.
“I love the United States,” he said to Sports Illustrated. “But why wouldn't the people who run your sports and who sponsor them make a public announcement that they welcome gay people and will support them? Because even if they feel that's bringing too much attention to something that should be a private matter, at this point that's what's needed.”