Because professional athletes are humans, and because all humans exist on a spectrum of personality ranging from totally vile to Fred McFeely Rogers, we might as well presume that there are some people in professional sports who ardently and actively hate gay people. That is, not just half-ignorant, mostly distracted people who fall back on some half-remembered church-y cant about abominations or passively absorbed cultural gay panic or whatever, but people who have given the matter a lot of earnest thought and have decided that they think homosexuality is wrong and bad, and people who are homosexual are wrong and bad for being that way, and that Something Needs To Be Done about all of it. Being ignorant is not good, of course, and more of a choice than it might seem, but being an active and heartfelt bigot is a different and uglier and thankfully more rare thing. The tricky thing, in figuring out which athletes are actually people who sincerely and actively hate other people because of their sexuality and which are just kind of idiots talking into hot mics with their brains turned off, is that the latter type can manifest a lot like the former.
When Chris Culliver, an obscure San Francisco 49ers defensive back and aggressive buyer of Twitter followers, gives a dumb answer to a dumber question asked by a
sweaty drug loaf radio doof, Culliver is being both ignorant and stupid, but it's more likely that he doesn't really care and is simply forming some dumb-ass words by rote. The same goes for both Adrian Peterson's "I'm not with that" in response to a question about gay marriage and his later assertion that a gay teammate wouldn't bother him too terribly much. He probably isn't, but it probably wouldn't. He almost certainly isn't devoting much/any thought to it either way. It seems likelier that he doesn't care than that he does.
This is what made it that much more jarring when former Miami Heat star Tim Hardaway went out of his way, during a 2007 radio interview with Dan Le Batard, to mention that he "hate(d)" gay people. "I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people," Hardaway said. "I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."
This was weirdly overmuch and supremely and objectively ugly stuff, and Hardaway's attempts to walk the whole thing back -- falling back on the popular fatuity that he doesn't "condone" homosexuality, as if the fundamental legitimacy of a significant portion of humanity depended on securing a quorum of gunning Clinton-era point guards -- were graceless and unsatisfying and overall not a lot less offensive than the thing they were supposed to be apologizing for. It seemed safe enough to file Hardaway in the second, smaller category of active assholes and be done with the dude.
Happily, it now seems like that would've been the wrong thing to do. Where your average professional athlete follows an offensive comment with a heavily qualified sports-pology of the If Anyone Were Offended I Would Certainly Be Sorry That They Were Offended variety and maybe an absolution-seeking phone call to a community leader -- think of all the hasty, publicist-dictated @-messages and texts that Jason Collins will field over the next decade or so -- Tim Hardaway did something different and more difficult. He's made his repentance not so much in public words as in action, by becoming an activist on behalf of basic gay civil rights and, more recently, marriage equality.
In 2011, Dave Zirin found Hardaway at a rally defending the embattled mayor of El Paso, who was facing a recall for allowing domestic partnership rights to gay and unmarried couples. (That recall, and a second one, both failed.) On Wednesday night, Hardaway's will be the first signature on a petition seeking to overturn Florida's gay marriage ban; the ban is only five years old, and it's tough to know whether Florida is ready or willing or able to be done with it. But Hardaway, again, seems willing to put his back into making a case for equality.
It's a smallish thing, maybe: Hardaway scored his last NBA point a decade ago, and was never the biggest of deals. But also it's not a small thing. Tim Hardaway, who said just about the ugliest and harshest thing an athlete has said about gay people, has remade himself, apparently in earnest and in record time, as an activist on behalf of people he once dismissed with casual cruelty. It seems like a dramatic change of heart, and it may well be. But it seems likelier that Hardaway simply has done something he neglected to do back in 2007 -- gave the issue some thought, considered that all involved were human, and then followed his values in the direction that they were probably pointed in the first place, if only he'd taken the time to look.