Op-ed: Who Will Be the Gay Jackie Robinson?

As baseball's opening day approaches, Bruce Silverman wonders when a gay player in any league will feel encouraged enough to step up to the plate and come out.

BY Bruce Silverman

March 28 2013 3:12 AM ET

I am straight.

There I said it. I came out. I announced it to the world.

No one cares. But when the first active male professional athlete comes out and announces he is gay, the world will care.

I suspect the news will be met with joy, pride, excitement, relief, anger, hatred, and confusion. It will mark the Jackie Robinson moment for gay men in sports. Somewhere in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, or the National Hockey League, there is at least one closeted player considering coming out. He is contemplating what will change in his life and his career if he announces to the world, “I’m gay!”

Would you care? Should you care? Should it matter?

You would! You should! It should!

Civil rights in this country has been a battle since our Founding Fathers inked their John Hancocks on the Declaration of Independence. We have come a long way since declaring “all men are created equal.” They wrote those words on that historic parchment more than 200 years ago. Sadly, in 2013, that all men and women are created equal is not yet self-evident. Despite all the advancements we have made as a nation on the subject of gay rights, we are still debating them. There are still states that do not recognize same-sex marriages or support gay rights. There are still politicians who do not want marriage equality or gay rights. There are still religious leaders who convince their followers that homosexuality is a sin and that they should not support marriage equality and gay rights.

Why? Ignorance. Bigotry. Closed-mindedness. Take your pick.

As late as 1967, it was illegal in many states for blacks and whites to marry. Could you even fathom that today? No, you couldn’t. So why can’t men marry men? Women marry women? In a country where the divorce rate is over 50%, the argument that gay marriage threatens the sanctity of marriage is a joke. In November, friends of mine are getting married. They asked me to perform their marriage, so I am getting ordained. I am excited to bring them together as husband and wife. Despite my own marriage not working out for better or worse, I still believe in marriage. But until there is marriage equality throughout the land, I don’t think I will be walking down the aisle again until I can perform gay wedding ceremonies as well as straight ones.

In the meantime, we live in the USA. The United Sports of America.

Record numbers of Americans tuned in to watch the Ravens outlast the 49ers in New Orleans in Super Bowl XLVII. We joined together to celebrate football played at the highest level. One of the stories of the big game was the end of Ray Lewis’s career. For me, one of the biggest stories of the game was about one of the guys playing right next to him, Brendon Ayanbadejo.

Brendon is an articulate, soft-spoken, hard-nosed linebacker. He looks like a man. Tall, dark, handsome. All-American. Super Bowl champion. Gay rights activist and marriage equality supporter. Brendon is the son of an Irish-American mother and a Nigerian father. He was born just a few years after it became legal for black men to marry white women in this country. He grew up recognizing that this nation is truly a melting pot and he was one of those well-blended individuals.

When the state of Maryland was preparing for its vote on marriage equality, he supported it. Despite state legislator Emmett Burns attacking him publicly, he was a voice of reason for an idea long overdue. He was a voice inside a locker room in one of the biggest boys’ clubs in the world, an NFL clubhouse. Maryland voted to affirm marriage equality in November in part because of a football player talking out about what is right.

As Ayanbadejo was coming under fire, a punter halfway across the country away came out and supported him. Chris Kluwe kicks a ball. He doesn’t do much hitting, but he is just as much a bad-ass as Brendon. A product of UCLA, Chris is another very outspoken supporter of gay rights simply because he knows we are all the same. After learning of Burns’s comments against Brendon, Kluwe wrote an op-ed piece with some really colorful language and extremely valid points. If you don’t think a guy who makes a living measuring success in hang time can make a difference, you are wrong.

Hudson Taylor was a wrestler. Not the Hulk Hogan or the Rock kind, but tough and physical nonetheless. These days his most successful moves are not by pile driver but by the pen. Taylor wore a Human Rights Campaign equality sticker on his helmet in college. He made a statement then, and now as the founder of Athlete Ally, he is making more statements. Athlete Ally’s mission is to encourage “all individuals involved in sports to respect every member of their communities, regardless of perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, and to lead others in doing the same.”

In 2000, Cyd Zeigler cofounded the website OutSports.com. Cyd created the site to draw attention to the accomplishments and stories of gay athletes around the world. He has been on the front lines of the conversation about homosexuality in sports. Zeigler knows on the field it only matters how you can play, not who you love. His journalistic career is dedicated to telling the stories of gay athletes.

Politics and sports seem to go hand in hand. Strange bedfellows, but we love strange bedfellows. So why do some people have a problem if those bedfellows are of the same sex? Playing sports? Brian Ellner has mixed his love of politics and sports for years. Ellner led the charge for the gay rights votes in Minnesota, Maryland, Maine, and Washington State. He has worked tirelessly to help make life equal for all LGBT people. Ellner has worked with politicians, entertainers, and sports stars to further not only the discussion on gay rights but make sure these rights are a reality for all.

Last month, Kluwe, Ayanbadejo, Taylor, Zeigler, and Ellner joined me on my radio show for a summit on gay rights, homosexuality, and homophobia in sports. It was a fascinating two-hour discussion with five men dedicated to the goal of gay rights and marriage equality. We laughed and got serious. We discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly of sports and humanity on the subject. We shared ideas and wondered when, not if, an active professional male athlete will stand at a podium and say, “I’m gay.”

Sports radio shows rarely discuss this topic. Maybe it’s because of ratings. Maybe it’s because most hosts don’t care or don’t have the balls to discuss the last taboo subject in sports.

Jackie Robinson came out in 1947. He didn’t have to say, “I’m black,” because everyone knew. It wasn’t a secret. Robinson had Pee Wee Reese to put his arm around him to show the world that teammates don’t care what the color of your skin is or who you love, they just care that you can play the game.

There are plenty of Pee Wees in the big four major leagues.

There is a gay Jackie Robinson too.

And we do care.

BRUCE SILVERMAN is a the host of the radio show Silverman: On Sports. Listen to his show or read  more from him on SilvermanOnSports.com.

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