By Roy Steele
In March of 1946, the UCLA Bruin’s first All-American football player, running back Kenny Washington, signed a contract to play for the National Football League’s (NFL) Los Angeles Rams. He was 27 years old, and the first African-American athlete to don a uniform in the segregated world of professional sports.
In April of 1947, Kenny Washington’s UCLA Bruin teammate, 28 year old Jackie Robinson, started at first base for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Brooklyn Dodgers.
These two heroic black athletes broke the color barrier in the NFL and MLB. It wasn’t easy for either man to be the first. It would be a lie to say that these men had an easy time of it, and I don’t want to sugar coat the challenges they faced as pioneers in the civil rights movement.
It was the desegregation in professional sports that provided the impetus for President Harry S. Truman to issue Executive Order 9981 in July 1948, which ended segregation in the US armed services.
While professional sports were integrated, it was nearly 20 years before
Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act in July of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination. It would be naive of me to say that a law ended racial discrimination, because there’s ample evidence in our society that there are bigots everywhere. Luckily they’re a small minority, with no influence on the majority of Americans who believe in and support racial equality.
There are 34 states in the United States where an employee can be terminated because they’re transgender, and 29 states where an employee can be fired for being lesbian, gay or bisexual. LGBT Americans face inequality and discrimination all the time. When you consider that 68% of our states lack employment protections, and Congress continually rejects the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), the workplace can be a minefield for LGBT workers who consider coming out.
Over the last few years the National Basketball Association (NBA) has been at the forefront of fighting inequality and homophobia in professional sports. In April of 2011, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 by the league, after he called a referee a “fucking faggot” during a game against the San Antonio Spurs. A month later, Chicago Bulls forward Joakim Noah was fined $50,000 for saying “fuck you, faggot” during a game, to a Miami Heat fan.
NBA commissioner David Stern instituted a zero tolerance policy for homophobia in the league, which included a ban on gay slurs. The NHL, NFL, MLB, WWE, UFC, and MLS, have all followed the NBA’s lead in developing similar policies governing each sport, to promote tolerance and fight anti-gay bigotry.
Commissioner Stern created an atmosphere in the league to promote tolerance and embrace diversity, in the player ranks as well as the bleachers. He made an extra effort to reach out to LGBT fans, and set an example that other businesses, government institutions, religious organizations, and institutions should emulate.
Yesterday, the NBA’s Jason Collins wrote “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.” This revelation was written for the May 6th, 2013 edition of "Sports Illustrated".
Jason Collins is the first active professional athlete in a team sport to ‘come out.’ He’s smart, he’s brave, he’s courageous, and his public pronouncement is nothing short of historic.
When Jason was asked why he came out while he was still an active +NBA player,
Tired of being alone; tired of coming home to an empty house; tired of relying on Shadow, his German shepherd, for company; tired of watching friends and family members find spouses and become parents; tired of telling lies and half-truths -- "cover stories like a CIA spy," he says with his distinctive cackle -- to conceal that he's gay. He was also tired of ... being tired.
I think that the LGBT community can relate to Jason Collins, as we've all been there.
This is a fantastic day for professional sports, the NBA, and the LGBT community. More importantly, it's a beautiful day for Jason Collins too, as he doesn't have to hide or be alone anymore.
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