From Chapter 2 - Young Athletes Are Why There Will Never Be A "Gay Jackie Robinson"
For years people have asked about when we would see the "gay Jackie Robinson." There are two ways to look at that: 1) we already have, and 2) we never will.
When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, it was at a time when racism was a dominant force in every corner of society. The Ku Klux Klan plagued the South. Segregation was alive and well from Boston to Kansas City. African Americans were barred from voting, they were banned from equal education, and they were denied many employment opportunities. Interracial marriage was illegal in most states.
In 1947, Robinson was a harbinger of change to come. He experienced threats and needed special protection to keep him safe on road trips. Players refused to compete against him. Yet there he was, every day from April to September, swinging a bat and rounding the bases. His participation in sports advanced the cause.
The time for a singular LGBT athlete to step into that role has come and gone. Certainly all is not perfect for LGBT people in America. While many see the fight for marriage equality in the rearview mirror, many politicians—mostly Republicans—still aim to strip gay and trans people and same-sex couples of their rights. It is still legal in twenty-nine states—the majority of America—to fire someone for being gay, as sexual orientation has not been granted federal civil rights protection.
Yet the day when an athlete can be ahead of the curve on LGBT human-rights issues in America has passed. Gay people can vote. Gay people aren't relegated to a particular seat on a bus. Out gay people have been playing sports with straight people for years. Is it perfect? No. Trans people in particular still face major issues in public accommodations and sports participation. Yet the state of LGBT rights in 2016 simply isn't in the same century as the civil rights of African Americans in 1947.
Instead, the closest thing we've had to a "gay Jackie Robinson" were people like Johnson, Sims, and other LGBT athletes and coaches at the high school and college level who came out publicly and to their teams in the eighties, nineties, and early 2000s. These people, in the trenches of small-town communities and lower-profile teams, collectively helped pave the way not just for future gay athletes, but their public profiles—both locally and nationally—shifted the conversation and bolstered legal advancements including marriage equality.
If there has ever been one "seminal" LGBT sports figure, it is Dave Kopay. While he had already retired when he came out in 1975, he was years ahead of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. And while both women were pushed out of the closet—King by a lawsuit, and Navratilova by a newspaper article—Kopay decided to take the step all on his own because it was the right thing to do.
Andrew Goldstein as well stands out as singular, though much less well-known. The lacrosse goalie came out publicly in 2005 while at Dartmouth and was the first out gay man drafted by a pro sports league when the Boston Cannons selected him in the Major League Lacrosse draft later that year. Yet it's impossible to assign him "Jackie Robinson" status given his short two-year stay in lacrosse and the much lower profile of the sport.
Bill Tilden is arguably the greatest male tennis player of all time, winning ten Grand Slams in the 1920s, at a time when he only had access to one or two a year. From 1918 to 1930 he advanced to at least the semifinals of all but one Grand Slam tournament he entered. While he was known in tennis circles to be gay, he didn't publicly acknowledge it until he was arrested for soliciting a minor; he went on to distance himself from his homosexuality, calling it an "illness" for which he was being treated. Hardly the actions of a "gay Jackie Robinson."
People say Collins and Rogers and Sam changed the conversation and helped bring change. And they did, to an extent. But their coming-out stories were more the result of the conversation already having changed, thanks to the aforementioned athletes, along with others. They didn't start or end the conversation, though they were three more (very big) dominoes.
Truth be told, all social-justice movements are bottom-up. It took hundreds of local politicians and a number of states to legalize same-sex marriage before President Obama would admit that he did, in fact, support it too. Social justice in sports hasn't been any different.
Before Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, there was Kenny Washington. Washington was a standout running back for UCLA who had attracted the interest of Chicago Bears coach George Halas in 1940. Until that time, the NFL was lily white, from the towel boys to the players to the coaches. Halas was blocked by the other NFL owners from signing Washington to a contract. Six years later, Washington was signed by and suited up for his hometown Los Angeles Rams. In 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson broke through, the NFL had seen its first black player take the field.
Yet to understand just how backward professional sports leagues are on social issues, you need only look at William H. Lewis. He was one of the very first black college football players, taking the field for Amherst College in 1888. Two years later, the mostly white Amherst players elected Lewis their team captain. After graduating from Amherst, he went to Harvard, where he played football for the Crimson and eventually spent twelve seasons as a coach. All of this was almost sixty years before Washington integrated the NFL, and ninety years before the NFL would have its first African American head coach.
I do have to offer this asterisk. In 1920, a black football player out of Brown University named Fritz Pollard played for—and the following year coached—the Akron Pros. It was the nascent years of the NFL when a team's running back could also be its coach. By 1926 Pollard and the handful of black players in the NFL were all removed from the league, never to be seen in an NFL uniform again. So while Pollard does have some historic distinction, it's hard to say he integrated the sport given no blacks were allowed for two decades after he left.
Despite William H. Lewis breaking the color barrier for players and coaches in college football, over a century later his name has been forgotten. Chances are slim to none you've seen this man's name before reading it here. We as a society give little credence to the incredible advancements made every day in high school and college athletics, focusing our key societal milestones on the pros.
It's the same dynamic with gay athletes. A hundred years from now people won't remember Corey Johnson or Brian Sims for being gay athletes. Guys like Conner Mertens and Mitch Eby—the first two college football players to come out to the media while still playing—will be long forgotten.
But we'll remember Michael Sam. We'll remember Jason Collins. Robbie Rogers won't be forgotten. The contribution these men have made by coming out while they were still playing—and in Sam's case before his professional career even started—is strong, and their statuses as visible role models are profound, no doubt. That's their most impactful contribution. Yet they came out after their leagues had already changed policy on sexual orientation, and they followed countless others who had come out in sports at the lower levels. None are the "gay Jackie Robinson." That's not to diminish their courage or personal journey; yet we can't overstate the importance of those younger kids at the lower levels of sports who helped pave the way for them.