January 4, 2011
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December 23, 2010
The Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) debate within our military is once again heating up in Washington. Although it appears that this time the outdated policy will finally - and thankfully - be reversed, allowing the brave men and women who defend our country to serve with complete honesty and openness and not be shamed into keeping quiet about who they are.
But in the team sports world, DADT continues to be standard operating procedure when concerning such matters. For if one was queried and asked to name current gay players in each major sport, it'd be nearly impossible to come up with any names.
After all, it's been thirty-five years since Dave Kopay, the former All-American at the University of Washington and NFL running back (who played with the 49ers, Lions, Redskins, Saints and Packers) became the first athlete from a major team sport to come out and admit his homosexuality. He revealed this several years after retiring from the league. Since that time only a scant few players have been as open about their sexual orientation (and only two NFL players). In these nearly four intervening decades since Kopay's admission, it is astounding as to how few gay athletes have been open about their lifestyle, reaffirming just how taboo the topic of homosexuality still is in the sports world.
Now of course individual sports has seen their share of gay athletes, both open and not. Arguably the greatest female and male tennis players of all time - Bill Tilden (who never publicly admitted it while playing) and Martina Navratilova (who was very open about who she was) were gay as are Billie Jean King, swimming champion Diana Nyad, diver Greg Louganis, golfer Patty Sheehan and a host of others. And there definitely appears to be somewhat less of a stigma when women reveal their sexual orientation compared to men.
So if the military indeed follows through and abolishes DADT, will team sports follow suit and allow their athletes to feel free and liberated if they do decide to live openly? After all, the armed forces has played a leading role in advancing the abolishment of discrimination before. After blacks and whites fought alongside each other in the battlefield, the specter of segregated baseball seemed ridiculous and inane following World War II. This helped pave the way for Jackie Robinson's heroic and historic entrance with the Brooklyn Dodgers. So perhaps team sport athletes will now follow this upcoming cue from the military and feel more free to not deny their lifestyle - only if they so choose of course.
Some may argue that to compare the inner torment of gays and the struggles they face in not feeling free to be open about their lifestyle with the centuries of violence and repression that black Americans went through is insulting. While it is most certainly not as brutal and institutionalized a prejudice that blacks have felt, why the need for comparison? After all, shouldn't we as a society strive for the noble and worthwhile endeavor of extinguishing bias and prejudice wherever and whenever it is discovered? It's the American thing to do - or should be.
One of the more iconic and enduring images from Robinson's early struggles while playing with the Dodgers and dealing with the vulgar and vicious racial epithets hurled at the Hall of Famer while on the field was when shortstop - and native southerner - Pee Wee Reese made the blatant and symbolic gesture of putting his arm around Robinson which immediately silenced a particularly hostile road crowd. This proved to be one of the first turning points in Robinson's general acceptance.
Would this likely happen today? Say if an All Star player came out, would his teammate feel comfortable physically embracing him as a show of support? I'd like to think so. But just think back to 2002 when Mike Piazza had to hold a bizarre and downright surreal on-field news conference to refute reports that questioned his sexuality. It makes one wonder how difficult it will in fact be for more team sport athletes - especially those with a higher profile - to come out.
Without question acceptance across racial and sexual lines has improved dramatically in most areas. Thankfully we don't hear many stories today like that of former University of Pittsburgh star Ed Gallagher who tried to kill himself as he couldn't reconcile the fact that he was gay and an athlete; or Dave Pallone the former umpire who felt he was fired because of his sexual orientation.
And just think of how ever-present gay characters are in TV, movies and even politics. The last real threshold to cross seems to be with team sports. But let's face it, if gay players in team sports felt that the environment was comfortable enough then I'm sure they'd feel more free to be open if they felt so compelled. So obviously there is still a level of fear and distrust though I suspect that this soon will fade.