By Simon Evans
Feb 15 (Reuters) - The decision by American soccer player Robbie Rogers to come out as gay on Friday was hailed by rights groups who believe sport in the Unites States is reaching a "tipping point" in accepting homosexual players.
The 25-year-old former Leeds United and U.S. international wrote a blog post about his struggle keeping his sexuality a secret and that he is leaving the game.
"Robbie Rogers demonstrated enormous courage coming out and it's great to see the overwhelming positive response from other players around the sport," Brian Ellner of Athletes Ally, a group that fights to end homophobia in sports, told Reuters.
"It's clear that the culture of sports in transforming rapidly. We're at a tipping point."
No player in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association or National Hockey League has ever come out as gay while playing.
The most prominent 'coming out' in professional sports in recent times was Puerto Rican featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz, who last October announced he was gay.
Rogers's statement, however, comes just over two weeks after a high-profile discussion of homophobia dominated headlines in the days leading up to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver caused a media storm after saying he would not welcome a gay team mate into the locker room.
Culliver's comments were roundly criticised by a number of other NFL players, most notably Brendon Ayanbadejo, a linebacker on the opposing Super Bowl team, the Baltimore Ravens.
Ayanbadejo, who has been a public supporter of gay marriage rights, said that many players may agree with Culliver but that the tide was turning.
"I'd say 50 percent of (NFL players) think like Culliver, 25 percent of the people think like me, 25 percent don't necessarily agree with all the things I agree with but they're accepting," he said.
"It's a fight. It's an uphill battle. But we went from 95 percent who think like Culliver, so we're winning the fight."
There was a further example of changing attitudes this week when Kobe Bryant of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers chastised a fan on Twitter for using a homophobic slur.
Bryant himself had been fined $100,000 for using an anti-gay comment at a referee during a game in 2011.
Challenged by one follower on Twitter about his own earlier behavior, Bryant said: "That wasn't cool and was ignorant on my part. I own it and learn from it and expect the same from others."
Patrick Burke, co-founder of the group You Can Play, which campaigns against homophobia and for equality for gays athletes, believes players in the top North American leagues will soon start to announce they are gay.
"I think we have hit the turning point in the sports world for sure. The majority of professional athletes are supportive and do not care if one of their team mates or opponents is gay, it makes no difference to them," Burke told Reuters.
"We have had over 100 professional hockey players stand up with us and say that they would be happy to support openly gay team mates.
"We will have an openly gay NHL player within the next year or so and I think the other sports will follow suit." (Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue)