Amid heightened speculation that a male athlete in one of North America's four major professional leagues will soon publicly declare his homosexuality, the National Hockey League and its players announced Thursday what appears to be the most comprehensive measure by a major men's league in support of gay athletes.
The NHL said it had formed a partnership with the You Can Play Project, an advocacy group pledged to fight homophobia in sports, and planned training and counseling on gay issues for its teams and players.
A gay male athlete for a major professional sports team in the United States has yet to come out publicly.
"It's the last closet in America and one of the most important ones," said Brian Ellner, a board member for Athlete Ally, an organization that supports gay athletes.
Other major leagues -- the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball -- have policies that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and various officials have spoken in support of gay athletes.
But no league seems to have taken such a strong public stance on the issue.
Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and a founder of You Can Play, said the demographics of the NHL, with so many players from Canada and Northern Europe, were part of the reason the league had taken such a step.
"We have players from around the world, and a lot of those players are from countries that are seen as more progressive on LGBT issues," Burke said. "So I don't think it's unreasonable or strange to think that the NHL and the NHLPA are driving this, in part because our players tend to be more comfortable with this issue."
Burke added that laying the groundwork for an openly gay player was not an official part of the program.
"But we're ready to do whatever that player wants," he said. "If he wants to do a thousand interviews and march in pride parades, we're equipped to handle that. And if he wants us to pass-block for him so he never has to do another interview in his life, we're equipped to handle that, too."
You Can Play will help run seminars for NHL rookies to educate them on gay issues and make resources and personnel available to each team, as desired. The league and union also will work with You Can Play to integrate the project into their behavioral health program, enabling players to seek counseling regarding matters of sexual orientation confidentially. Burke said the joint venture would also step forward when players make homophobic remarks.
The NFL has had internal conversations about how to prepare for the moment when one of its players publicly discusses his homosexuality.
Officials said the NFL's security department would monitor public reaction, looking for potential threats from fans. Troy Vincent, a former player who is now the league's executive charged with player engagement, and Anna Isaacson, the league's community relations director, have been designated to cull ideas from gay advocacy groups about what could be done to smooth the way for acceptance and to build relationships with the groups that the NFL might then use to help them address players.
The ideas raised by advocacy groups are myriad -- could the league order stadiums to stop jokingly training their "kiss cams" on two men, for instance. Much of the conversation has centered on the league's rookie symposium, a convention for incoming players, and the training of what the NFL calls ambassadors, former players who can deliver key messages the league believes are important.