With same-sex marriage legislation currently sitting before the Supreme Court, the gay movement has been seriously galvanized. This has helped to thrust the issue of equality to the forefront of the American consciousness.
However, any issue involving homosexuality is still very polarizing in today's society. This fact is clearly evident in the attitudes most major American sports have towards gay athletes.
For the most part, organizations such as the NFL and NBA implicitly operate under the recently repealed military policy of "don't ask; don't tell" when it comes to dealing with athletes opening up about their sexuality.
It is often suggested that the reason for athletes to stay in the closet is because fans and players alike cannot handle the notion of an openly gay individual playing a sport like football or basketball. Given this attitude, it is not surprising that there is apprehension on the part of closeted gay athletes to open up about their sexual orientation.
But on April 29, NBA center Jason Collins, the 18th overall pick in the 2001 draft, made history coming out as the first openly gay player in any of the four major American sports.
Even after this first hurdle had been cleared, the question still remains: Will Collins' action open the floodgates and make it easier for other athletes to follow his lead?
And, for the sake of argument, what kind of impact will this have on MMA and the UFC?
MMA has often been labeled as a barbaric sport that fosters a mentality of misogyny and homophobia among those who enjoy it, but like the "human cockfighting" comparison, this assumption is grossly exaggerated.
UFC President Dana White acknowledged that even he has been characterized in this manner stating, "I know I have the big ‘homophobe' persona and people think I'm some homophobe. I'm the furthest thing from it" (via usatoday.com).
MMA may receive an unjustifiably bad rap, but the fact remains it actually beat the four major sports to the punch (so to speak), when Shad Smith became the first male fighter to open up about his homosexuality to The New York Times back in 2008.
Smith, a wrestler, has amassed a 12-17 record while bouncing around smaller promotions. However, in March he fought for Bellator MMA, the second-largest American mixed martial arts organization. He dropped a unanimous decision to Aaron Miller at Bellator 92, an event that had a viewership of 741,000 (via sherdog.com).
UFC 157 was another important moment in the progressive evolution of MMA. When Ronda Rousey defended her bantamweight belt against Liz Carmouche, it was a historic bout not only because it marked the first time women fought inside the Octagon, but also it was the first time an openly gay fighter competed under the UFC banner.
Carmouche, a former sergeant in the Marine Corps, was praised by White for her courage to come out, and he hoped that other gay fighters could follow her example.
The UFC currently does not have any openly gay male fighters on their roster, but White stated unequivocally that, "If you're an athlete in the UFC and you are gay, I could care less. You will not be treated any different" (via yahoo.com).
That is refreshing to hear from the president of a major sports organization. Though, of course, even with this open attitude, there will still be those individuals who are not entirely comfortable with homosexuality in MMA.
In a 2011 interview with UOL Esporte, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira stated "I have no prejudice against gays, but I wouldn't train with someone who's gay" (via bloodyelbow.com)
More recently, heavyweight prospect Matt Mitrione came under fire and was even briefly suspended for inflammatory comments he made in regards to Fallon Fox, one of MMA's first transgendered fighters.
However, in the case of Jason Collins, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, with a good number of players including Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and LeBron James voicing their support for him.
White feels that the majority of fighters will be similarly accepting when the first male UFC fighter decides to come out stating (via yahoo.com):
Most of the guys that are in this sport are really good people. I honestly don't see a situation where [an opponent would refuse to fight against a gay athlete] would happen, but if it did, I'd fix it.
This attitude is just what MMA needs. It would help to shed some of the negative connotations keeping the sport from being regulated in every state. Also, if the UFC can continue to try to promote a positive atmosphere for gay fighters, then this attitude might possibly rub off on the other major sports.
Over time, the UFC will become even more accepting of openly gay fighters, and hopefully, in the near future, these athletes will not be viewed on the basis of their sexual preference, but rather be judged solely on the merits of their accomplishments within the cage.