On social consciousness in sports

On social consciousness in sports
April 10, 2013, 1:30 pm
Share This Post

Inside the belly of the 24-hour sports news cycle, stories — no matter how outrageous — typically have the shelf life of an open can of soda. Whether it’s something as silly as Rex Ryan having a tattoo of his wife in a Mark Sanchez jersey, something as shocking as Blade Runner allegedly murdering his supermodel girlfriend, or something as totally bonkers as the Manti Te’o hoax, these stories, and every story, eventually eat themselves to death and disappear as quickly as they arrive — only to be replaced by something sillier, more shocking and even more bonkers. (OK, fine. Maybe Te’o is the exception.)
 
That said, I’m surprised that the conversation surrounding Brittney Griner and her NBA potential has persisted as long as it has. When Mark Cuban initially ignited the issue last week, saying that he’d consider selecting Griner in the second round of this year’s draft, I figured the story would swiftly run its course. After all, it was a ridiculous thing to say, an obvious attempt by Cuban to make headlines and give Shark Tank a boost in the ratings. Griner is one of the most dominant players in women’s basketball history, but we all — especially someone as smart as Cuban — know that she, with all due respect, doesn’t have a shot at the NBA level.
 
“I think it would be a sham,” Geno Auriemma, who is alleged to know a thing or two about women’s basketball, said last week. “The fact that a woman could actually play right now in the NBA and compete successfully against the level of play that they have is absolutely ludicrous.”
 
Still, the story has survived — thanks in part to Shane Battier, one of the league’s most respected voices, telling ESPN that he expects to see a female NBA player in his lifetime — and yesterday, made its way to Celtics practice.
 
“I think it will be a little difficult, just because of the physicality of the sport,” said Paul Pierce, trying to be as politically correct as humanly possible. “The men are much faster, much stronger and much more athletic. Will it happen one day? I don’t know. They have a women’s league, where they are the best women in the world. Honestly, I can’t tell you if I can see a woman right now playing in the NBA. Not in the next couple of years. No.”

Good answer, Paul. A few more like that from players around the league, and Cuban’s cry for attention should be silenced and the “Brittney Griner to the NBA?” storyline will be buried like so many others before it.
 
But while the concept of a female playing in a men’s professional league might be fleeting, there’s another social issue within the framework of sports that won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, it’s only just beginning. It’s getting ready to explode. And once it does, it will make all the talk about Griner, Oscar Pistorius and even Manti Te’o look like amateur hour.
 
I’m talking about an active athlete coming out of the closet.
 
Last month, CBSSports.com reported that an NFL player was strongly considering coming out, but was still nervous about the public backlash. Then, just last week, free agent linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, an outspoken advocate for gay rights and same-sex marriage, told the Baltimore Sun that there’s now a group of four NFL players considering coming out together.
 
“I think it will happen sooner than you think," Ayanbadejo told the newspaper. "We're in talks with a handful of players who are considering it. There are up to four players being talked to right now, and they're trying to be organized so they can come out on the same day together. It would make a major splash and take the pressure off one guy. It would be a monumental day if a handful or a few guys come out.”
 
It would be. And much like the Griner issue, the buzz surrounding this country’s first openly gay professional athletes found its way into yesterday’s Celtics practice.
 
“There’ll be a lot of talk about it and then I think it will go away,” Doc Rivers said when asked about the topic. “It’s [interesting]. As a team, I took the team to see '42' [on Monday]. There was a lot of talk and then all of a sudden, everybody starts playing. And I think the same thing will happen. So, that’s the way I look at it.”
 
I thought that was a fascinating comparison by Doc:
 
Jackie Robinson and America’s first openly gay athlete.
 
It was by no means a perfect comparison, but fascinating nonetheless.
 
While there are obviously glaring differences between the two, in many ways, the gay rights movement is this generation’s civil rights movement. The same way that I look back at history, and can’t believe that my parents grew up in a time where segregation was tolerated (never mind legal), and the concept of a black athlete competing in American professional sports was a source of so much controversy, I know that someday my kids will look back at this era with same bewilderment.
 
“Wait a second, Dad. You mean you grew up in a time when it was illegal for gay people to get married? When gay athletes were afraid to come out of the closet?”
 
I think that it will sound as backwards and confusing to them as the civil rights era (and the hundred or so years before it) seems to people of this generation. And that history will remember those who are currently so vehement and hateful about the concept of an openly gay athlete (or gay rights, in general) in the same light it does the hotel owners who wouldn’t let Robinson stay with his teammates and/or the players who harassed him while he attempted to break in.
 
Although, that’s where the comparison between Robinson and whoever assumes the identity of America’s first openly gay professional athlete starts to diverge. While it will certainly be a huge deal when (not if) an athlete does come out, today’s social climate is nowhere close to what it was back in the late-1940s. If a player comes out in 2013, there won’t be businesses lining up to deny “Gay Player X” services. While I’m sure some players will speak their minds and coming out against it, none of them will threaten to quit; and they certainly won’t be in the majority. In fact, any player who speaks out against a gay athlete or teammate will be so overwhelmed by a tidal wave of negative attention, that he’ll just end up apologizing.
 
Will there be taunts from fans? Horrible things screamed in Player X’s direction during games? Of course. But you know what? That’s America. That’s always going to be there. The same way, all these years later, there are still people who hate black athletes for being black and religious athletes for being religious. You better believe there are going to be fans who hate and harass a gay athlete solely for being gay.
 
But that’s the vocal minority. And it’s far more minor than it was back in the days of Robinson. While Robinson breaking the color barrier resulted in constant torment and eye-level fastballs, in the big picture, America’s first gay athlete will be celebrated. If he wants, he’ll appear on every talk show on the planet. He’ll have more endorsements than he ever imagined. While at the same time, setting the wheels for more athletes to do the same, and help advance our society as a whole.
 
And then, hopefully, like Rivers said, it just won’t be a big deal.
 
Time will go on, more players will come out, the detractors will realize: “Hey, you know what? The world’s still spinning; this isn’t so bad.” And the news cycle will keep on trucking, right on through to the next big story.