When it comes to the business of simply being honest about who they are, some [gay athletes] become little shrinking violets because they're afraid, probably, of being booed from the terraces, and that must be a horrible experience and shame on people who do it. But it ain't [sic] going to stop someone being a fantastic footballer because they're honest about their private lives, is it? I don't believe so and the world is changing and sport, I'm afraid, is very slow to catch up.
McKellen's comments are even more important when you consider the sad death of Justin Fashanu, still the only gay professional soccer player to come out while still playing. Fashanu was criticized by teammates and fans and was disowned by his brother. He committed suicide at age 37.
On the other side of the water, this list of out athletes in the big four North American sports is very short (let me know if I'm missing anyone)—and they all came out publicly after retirement: Billy Bean and Glenn Burke (baseball), John Amaechi (basketball), David Kopay, Roy Simmons and Esera Tuaolo (football). There are no current or former NHL hockey players who are publicly open about being gay, which is surprising given this survey, which actually found that 80% of NHL'ers would be fine with an out teammate, compared to 62% for baseball, 60% for basketball and 57% for football.
The closest thing to a gay hockey guy would have to be the son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, Brendan Burke. Now, for those of you who don't know (which is probably 98% of you), Burke embodies the deeply masculine, gruff, boys-club aspect of hockey, an approach that celebrates grit, honor, truculence, and the willingness to fight at any time (disclosure: I also support these values in my hockey team). So for the old-school, pugilistic Burke to have an openly gay son was a huge story in Canada. The best part was the grace, honesty and obvious love with which Burke handled the whole thing. It's really kind of awesome and made me proud to be a Leafs fan. Just watch the video below: