Kobe Bryant, long notable on Twitter by his absense, is trying to put his arrival on the site to good use (Image | Getty)

Kobe Bryant, long notable on Twitter by his absense, is trying to put his arrival on the site to good use (Image | Getty)

The Los Angeles Lakers are currently in the middle of arguably their worst season for a generation, but there is one piece of heartening news to come from the franchise, and it is a lot more important than whether the Lakers make the NBA playoffs or not.

Star player Kobe Bryant has been a recent addition to the legion of athletes on Twitter. I don’t follow Bryant myself, but – at the time of writing – there are over 1.3 million people who do. It’s no surprise to learn that famous sports stars on Twitter are often used as lightning rods for gentle teasing, or that ghastly word, “banter”.

And sometimes it can get even more egregious. About a week ago, two fans were engaged in an online war of words, with it eventually devolving into homophobia, as one tweeted, “You’re gay” to the other.

At this point, Kobe intervened with a tweet of his own:

What makes this particularly striking is that Bryant himself was the perpetrator of a homophobic slur a year ago. Caught muttering the offending term under his breath, he apologised a day later. What makes this story especially pertinent is that not long after chastising the aforementioned fan for his homophobic tweet, Kobe then received a  response from another fan, which essentially asked how could he criticise someone for doing something that he himself was guilty of in the past?

Kobe’s response was as follows, exactly! That wasn’t cool and was ignorant on my part. I own it and learn from it and expect the same from others.”

The dynamic between sport and homosexuality remains an uneasy one. The recent coming out of retired American ‘soccer’ winger Robbie Rogers was a case in point, as he went his whole career keeping his sexuality a secret, and only felt comfortable disclosing the truth in retirement.

This isn’t to castigate Rogers. There’s no right or wrong way to come out. It should always be a personal choice, and no-one should ever feel forced to do so. It’s often forgotten that while Billie Jean King is considered one of the pioneers for homosexuality in sport, she was in fact outed by an ex-partner.

It would be premature to proclaim Bryant as the figurehead for LGBT rights in sport. The likes of Brendan Ayanbadejo, Kenneth Faried or Chris Kluwe have been beating the drum of this sphere of equality for much longer. But Kobe’s tweet matters because while straight athletes, fans and pundits shouldn’t try to coerce gay sportspeople to disclose their sexuality, what we can do is help to lay a foundation where LGBT athletes won’t feel that they could be ostracised if they come out publicly.

Like a farmer preparing the soil for a fertile autumn, we all need to do the same in the world of sport. The fact that there are so few athletes who have come out publicly is something that we should all feel ashamed of.

So when someone as high profile as Kobe Bryant can not only check his “straight privilege”, but also demonstrate that he would be welcoming to gay athletes, it pushes us a little bit closer to the day where it’ll be no more an issue than the colour of someone’s hair.

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