Gay players shouldn't wait to come out

February 08, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Former NBA player John Amaechi's story about being a gay athlete on a professional sports team -- told in an upcoming book, an upcoming TV interview and likely several hundred interviews in the upcoming weeks -- sounds like a brave move.

It was just as brave when former NFL player Esera Tuaolo told his story a couple years ago.

And former NFL player Roy Simmons a couple years before that.

And former major league baseball player Billy Bean a couple years before that. And former umpire Dave Pallone before that, and more than 30 years ago, former NFL player Dave Kopay.

All brave. And all "former."

All waited until after their careers were done. Which might just be why their stories sound exactly the same, tell-all after tell-all. Especially the part where they believe that one day, hopefully in their lifetimes, a gay athlete will make himself known while active and be accepted for who he is.

Well, with all due respect to the internal and external struggle they face ... when is one going to actually do it? And what makes anyone think that anything other than that is going to change anything?

Sure. Easy for me to say.

Not easy, but someone already has done it for my particular oppressed group. Guy by the name of Jackie Robinson. Did it 60 years ago; took the bullet for everybody.

If you buy the notion that Robinson's integration of the national pastime was the first big wedge in the door to real societal change -- the way that black entertainers were not -- then you ought to buy the notion that breaking that barrier for gay athletes today can do the same.

Let there be no mistake -- Robinson did choose to integrate "organized" baseball (that is, "whites-only" baseball) in the 1940s. When Branch Rickey proposed the idea to him, he could have said no. Rickey gave him a chance to, describing the abuse Robinson would endure his first two years, telling him that for it all to work, he could not retaliate in any way.

C'mon, you know the next part: Robinson asked whether Rickey was looking for a black man too afraid to fight back; Rickey answered that he was looking for one with the guts not to fight back.

Robinson said OK.

Didn't say he couldn't do it. Didn't say he couldn't risk his career, his money, his lifestyle. Didn't say he cared only about himself, rather than future generations. Didn't say he wasn't interested in rocking the boat that much, didn't say he hoped someday that somebody else would do it.

Robinson became an American hero, an iconic figure to every race, and his number is retired on every team in major league baseball. He also lived only 16 years past retirement, dying at 53. The stress ruined his health. The fairy-tale version of this story doesn't usually mention that part.

Imagine, though, if Robinson had simply returned to the Negro Leagues, and after his retirement, he'd written a book about how hard it was on him and others to have never played in the majors.

It would have been very enlightening. Others might have later written similar books: Willie Mays, Jim Brown, Michael Jordan. And we might still have separate leagues, schools and water fountains today.

That's what's going on now with gay athletes. Kopay's book about hiding his sexuality through nine years as an NFL running back was published in 1977. Now, here is Amaechi in 2007. At the risk of trivializing the individual suffering they endured, the answer to a certain question remains the same. Maybe someday somebody will do it, but not me, not in this environment; it's too hostile.

Wonder why it's still so hostile.

The first active athlete to announce himself as gay -- and it would have to be an "announcement," which, for obvious reasons, Robinson didn't have to do -- will have to go through an initiation different from Robinson's, but surely just as brutal. The prejudices against homosexuality in the major sports are deeply ingrained. Just as gay rights leaders have followed the old civil rights playbook almost page by page, this pioneer will have to work from Robinson's playbook, and subs for the roles of Rickey, Pee Wee Reese and all the heroes and villains will have to step up.

The atmospheres and mind-sets aren't going to change themselves. And if they could change merely because of an after-the-fact book, we'd be looking at a mighty different landscape right now.

The prejudices change when someone decides to step out on the ledge and make the people, that culture, that mind-set, change. Someone will have to sacrifice his career, maybe his life, for future generations.

Maybe that's harder than living a lie in front of the world, which is what every book tends to say. But until someone tries it, no one will ever know.

Having to do that to gain acceptance today isn't any fairer now than it was for Robinson. But such acts make the unimaginable become real. Yes, it is hard to imagine a world where no one judges your ability by who you sleep with after the game, or questions your preferences when you miss a clutch free throw.

But now, black players are not news. Pretty soon, black coaches winning the Super Bowl won't be news. Back in 1947, not even Jackie Robinson could have imagined that.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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