In 1974, erstwhile Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and current exuberant FOX Sports commentator Terry Bradshaw was benched at the start of the season in favor of his back-up, Joe Gilliam, who became the first black starting quarterback in the NFL era. I was 10 and in Pittsburgh, and to me that was a big deal.
Though Gilliam’s record as a starter for the first six games was an impressive four wins, one loss and one tie, he was sent back to the bench after six games. The reasoning was a bit unclear, but it was presumably because fans demanded the return of Bradshaw — not because he was the better quarterback, but because he was white. I vividly recall that entire episode. Gilliam was receiving death threats at the time, and I didn’t understand it since he was winning games for the Steelers? To me Gilliam's number, 17, was a cause for excitement, not for execution.
Gilliam’s situation and all that surrounded it, and his banishment to second-string upset me as a youth. While I grew up in an all-white environment, for some reason, at a young age, I didn’t understand why color was a differentiator. I didn’t like it. Consequently, I began privately rooting for all the Black quarterbacks in the NFL during that time, including the Buffalo Bills' James Harris, the Los Angeles Rams' Vince Evans and the New York Jets' J.J. Jones.
Similarly, the Steelers Hall of Fame running back at the time, Franco Harris, had a fan club dubbed “Franco’s Italian Army.” Harris is half-black, and I remember asking my grade school gym teacher why Harris didn’t have a “Black Army?” Mr. Meister’s answer still rings, “People don’t want to think about the fact that he’s half Black,” he cracked as if it were a joke. "Why not?" I replied. He simply shrugged his shoulders.
Franco Harris from then on became my favorite player in the NFL. His poster hung above my bed through grade school and high school, and even at the end of his career, when he fled for the Seahawks, I still thought the world of him, and resented the Steelers for not signing him at the time.
As I got older, and became more aware of my sexuality, my self-confidence was bolstered, and my emotions tweaked, every time I heard about an athlete who came out as gay. The first one I remember hearing about was New York Giants running back Dave Kopay. I had his football cards, and without a doubt, at one point in my life, I could recite his statistics from rushes, yards gained, yards per carry, and touchdowns. While it was comforting, it was inconceivable to me at the time that a guy like that could be gay?
My life revolved around sports, so you never heard gay in the same sentence as football, for example; as I’ve gotten older I continue to gain secret validation about who I am when athletes like Kopay, Billie Jean King, baseball’s Billy Bean and basketballs’ Jason Collins come out of the closet. It’s still rare that someone comes out while playing like Collins; nevertheless, I am still fascinated that someone in sports can be gay. Something I've carried with me since my youth. If they were gay, and had millions of fans, could I be that bad?
When Washington Redskins tight-end Jerry Smith died of AIDS in the '80s, I was oddly at once saddened by his death and heartened by the fact that he was gay. It hurts me, even today, to think about how Smith had to remain firmly in the closet. At the time of his peak, he was one of the best tight-ends in the NFL, catching Billy Kilmer's wobbly passes.
Professional athletes have not only held a huge sway over me, but have influenced our global culture. Cassius Clay's (aka Muhammad Ali) defiant protests against the Vietnam War nearly jeopardized his career, but his rejection of the war left a positive mark on American society. Many were repulsed by his behavior, but others started to seriously question our involvement in Vietnam.
Likewise, at the 1968 Olympics, U.S. track medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the U.S. national anthem during their award ceremonies. They took a lot of heat for their actions, but in 1968 with Dr. King and Robert Kennedy's assinations, their bold endeavor was reflective of the Black community’s pain and turmoil during that tumultuous year.
Now, more recently, Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the National Anthem, exactly four years ago — which seems like a lifetime — was only a harbinger of athletes trying to take a more affirmative stand against police brutality and racial inequality. Kaepernick was undeservedly scorned and severely misunderstood at the time.
Yet, four years later, his kneel is a seminal moment, and stands out as a definitive statement. The problem is that since that time, nothing has been done to change this despicable blight on our criminal justice system.
The historic NBA playoff boycotts this week, along with several other franchise proscribes, seem like a justified, fervent plea from Black athletes to stop this incessant, barbaric and sickening behavior from the police establishment. The seven shots fired in the back of Jacob Blake by a white cop makes you wonder, despite all the protests after George Floyd, if it will ever end.
When a player with the talent and fiscal clout of LeBron James, runs out of patience, and screams on Twitter, “FUCK THIS MAN!!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT,” fans of all stripes and backgrounds take notice, while some remain ignorant to the urgent appeal.
No less than a spokesman for Vice President Pence said about the NBA boycott, “…it’s absurd...it’s silly.” You know who else Pence thinks is absurd and silly? Gays, lesbians, definitely trans people, queer folks in general, and anyone else who isn’t white, middle-aged, Christian, and a resident of suburbia.
It was white suburbia years ago that revolted and renounced athletes like Gilliam and Harris; however, white suburbia isn’t as white, straight and narrow-minded as it used to be. It’s not ironic that Pence’s comments bridge the black and LGBTQ+ communities, and their fights for equality. As a result of increasing ignorant comments like these, athletes have become more vocal and their words and actions more pertinent during the last few years.
That’s why we need athletes who have enormous impact and sway on our society to stand up, kneel, protest, and come out.
Michael Sam risked his career in the NFL by coming out before being drafted. Was his revelation similar to Kaepernick’s knee, preventing him from continuing his career in football? We'll probably never really know, but he paid a price.
Both he and Kaepernick risked their careers and created a path so that others could follow in their footsteps, and in the process, help sports fans better understand the issues associated with being Black in America, and better comprehend that LGBTQ+ people are everywhere, including professional sports.
Just look at how Dwayne Wade’s vocal support for his transgender child generated overwhelming support among sports fans. His words of encouragement have helped many people wake up to the importance of equality for the transgender community.
And recently, when Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman used an antigay slur while on the air, several players vocalized their support for the LGBTQ+ community, including reliever Amir Garrett who tweeted, “To the LGBTQ +community just know I am with you, and whoever is against you, is against me,” he wrote. “I’m sorry for what was said today.”
As a community, we should be showing strong support and empathy to athletes this week, and beyond, who chose to boycott playoff games, kneel during the National Anthem, or take a pause during the game — like the WNBA — in the causes against police brutality and for racial equality. Their fight for equality, safety and freedoms reflects our fight. All LGBTQ+ people, regardless of race, has come under attack because of who we are. We must fight for our marginalized people.
In the wake of a stunning lack of leadership on the issue of police brutality by local, state, and federal governments, athletes are picking up the mantle and suspending and pausing their careers and livelihoods so that more people wake up to the Black and Brown communities' horrible plight. Millions of people love their sports, and when their favorite players take a long pause, and speak, fans take notice.
So, what we can do as sports fans is support and recognize the athletes' stances, and take them on as our own, just like we do when our favorite teams and players win, lose, or tie. Players are begging us to hear them, and we must listen. So, while the players pour their hearts out to us for the greater common good, we should rally around them.
As LGBTQ+ sports fans that’s how we might be able to help this vital cause in some small way. It’s the least we can do in return for all the happiness our favorite teams have provided us over the years, and the warm lifetime memories we carry for our favorite heroes and players, like Joe Gilliam. Saying things like, “People don’t want to think about the fact that he’s half Black," does not work and can never be uttered to a 10 year old again.