“I am a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
Washington Wizards center Jason Collins made this announcement April 29, thirty-eight years after Washington Redskins Dave Kopay became first pro player to come out–after he’d retired, four years before Collins was born.
It’s been a long time coming, this first open declaration by an active pro athlete. A player’s sexual orientation shouldn’t even be an issue, but it’s important at this point in time, simply to let people know that there are gays, have been and will be gays, and they’re out there in all areas of endeavor.
Pro sports mirror our country’s prevailing prejudices. Major league baseball was closed to blacks until Branch Rickey, then president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, undertook a stealth campaign to introduce the first black player into a major league (all-white) team. Rickey’s brilliant and ruthless tactics culminated in Jackie Robinson stepping to the plate on April 15, 1947. Robinson’s appearance even provoked death threats–to kill a man for hitting a ball with a bat.
Today, pro players still fear the revelation of their (homo)sexuality, over which they have no more control than skin color. But along with prejudice, there is acceptance. Sports writer Larry Brown reveals that legendary Washington Redskins–then Green Bay Packer–head coach Vince Lombardi recognized and protected gay team members, among them the above-mentioned Kopay, and Kopay’s partner, team member Jerry Smith. This was back in the 1960s, civil rights days; still seeking equality more than two decades after Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. Lombardi was ahead of his time in race issues as well, notes Brown, refusing to let his team frequent establishments “where equal services were not offered to black players.”
Wherever there are those working to bar, belittle, prohibit, and exclude others of whatever stripe, there are those behind the scenes, standing firm, refusing to condone bigotry. They may have many and mixed motives. Both Rickey and Lombardi wanted to win games, and not every protector is warm and fuzzy. Lombardi’s daughter, for example, was quoted by Brown as saying her dad “treated everyone equally–like dogs.”
Nevertheless, these bellwethers appear through time, isolated beacons maintaining standards of fairness, inclusion and humanity, shining until society catches on–and up.