Then-Boston Celtics center Jason Collins, right, struggles for control of...

Then-Boston Celtics center Jason Collins, right, struggles for control of the ball with Sacramento Kings forward Chuck Hayes (42) during the second half of a game in Boston. (Jan. 30, 2013) Credit: AP

When former NFL reserve player Wade Davis was in the 10th grade, he did everything in his power to hide that he was gay, especially from his teammates.

"It was about making sure nobody ever found out," said Davis, 35, who came out in 2012 and is now a gay activist. "I grew up with the idea that being gay wasn't accepted, and I held that notion through school and into the NFL. I didn't want to put another barrier in my way."

Free agent NBA player Jason Collins, 34, a 12-year veteran, last week moved to break through that barrier. He became the first active male athlete from one of the four major professional sports to announce his homosexuality. Collins' pioneering declaration received support from stars such as the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade and the Knicks' Jason Kidd.

President Barack Obama called Collins and spoke admiringly of him at a news conference. Obama said Collins' decision could inspire children struggling with their own sexual orientation, saying they would learn that Collins could be "a great competitor" and also be openly gay.

"I think a lot of young people out there who are gay or lesbian who are struggling with these issues to see a role model like that, who's unafraid, I think it's a great thing," he said, adding, "I'm very proud of him."

Today's high school football locker rooms aren't much different from Davis' day. Coaches push players to their physical limit and players let off steam through raucous or raunchy behavior that sometimes gets out of hand. On the field, the pressures facing a young athlete increase, both athletically and through the taunting of opponents.

The difference is a spirit of tolerance and respect exemplified by the reaction of Collins' NBA peers, the president and even high school athletes.

Marc Coles, 16, an All-Long Island linebacker at William Floyd High School, agreed that Collins can become "a famous role model" and said he would treat a gay teammate with the same respect he would anyone else.

"I have gay relatives, so I don't view them any differently," he said, adding that if a teammate were openly gay, "We would treat him as any other teammate. As long as you're helping us and you're a good teammate, we wouldn't have a problem with it."

Wantagh High School wrestling coach Paul Gillespie said that even in his sport, with all its physical contact, he doesn't believe an openly gay wrestler would be shunned.

"There's a lot of grabbing and touching in wrestling, and, like in anything, you'll have a few people against it," said Gillespie, who has coached for 36 years, "but in this day and age, I think most wrestlers would treat him as just another competitor."

Floyd football coach Paul Longo said if a player came out, it would be the responsibility of the coach to "set down the law and make it absolutely clear" to the players that no taunting or abuse would be accepted.

Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at Stony Brook University, said the prevalence of homophobic language among youngsters isn't necessarily an indicator of homophobia.

"The common assumption is that everyone in your locker room is straight and it's often a way straight guys are policed by teammates and coaches," said Kimmel, who specializes in gender and masculinity issues.

"A guy who doesn't have a problem with gay people might still say, 'You're a [gay slur]' as an insult, without it having to do with his sexuality. If you listen to just the language, you might come away with the impression that nothing has changed, but I think our society has changed. The civil discourse being so supportive [of Collins] is indicative of that."

Davis said he saw less homophobia in football the higher up he got. At Overland High School in Aurora, Colo., the slurs were thrown around, less in college (Weber State), and "it was almost nonexistent" in the NFL locker rooms, he said.

Davis, who from 2000-03 played for two NFL Europe teams and was on the Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins practice squads, "couldn't say with certainty" if a prominent athlete coming out when he was younger -- and being received as Collins was -- would have inspired him to follow suit, "but it would've definitely increased my chances."

"Now these kids can see a professional athlete out there, discuss him, and there's a good chance he'll be mentioned in a positive light," Davis said. "That will be impactful in any young person who's thinking about coming out."

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