Editorial: Four decades on, a sign of progress
In the fifth episode of the ground-breaking All in the Family television show, Archie Bunker directs a homophobic slur at a friend of his son-in-law Mike and is outraged when Mike retaliates by saying that it’s actually Archie’s friend, a retired pro football player, who is gay.
“You are sick. You need help. . . . ” Archie yells. “When you go besmearing the name of a great linebacker, a second-choice All-American, a man’s man, I mean a real man. . . . ”
But it’s Mike who’s right, as Archie’s enormous friend Steve tells him over a beer – but not until after twice beating Archie at arm-wrestling.
The show marked the first appearance of a gay male character in a television sitcom. The year was 1971. And though more than four decades have passed, not one active gay NFL player has publicly admitted his homosexuality. In fact, until this week, when former Celtics center and current free agent Jason Collins came out, not one active player in any of the four major professional American team sports – football, baseball, basketball and hockey – had admitted to being gay.
Collins considers tennis player Martina Navratilova – who revealed that she was a lesbian in 1981, then remained in public life and with courage and grace fought for gay rights – his role model. Now, Collins said, he hopes that he will be a role model for others. He will be.
We congratulate Collins, as do countless Americans including President Obama, who called him personally to thank him for his courage. We hope that his public acknowledgement of his sexuality helps other professional athletes come out of the closet. By doing so they will offer hope to others, wherever they might be on the pantheon of human sexuality, who are fearful of being accepted for who they are.
The sooner the world sees locker-room interviews with gay professional athletes the better. Perhaps once that happens, the whole issue of gay, straight or bi will be seen as just one small part of who an individual is. A fact that has no bearing on professional competence. A fact that when raised elicits a “yeah, so?”
That’s what happened when America’s best female collegiate player, 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, nonchalantly revealed that she was gay. So many professional female athletes, from Navratilova and fellow tennis great Billie Jean King to WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes and soccer payer Megan Rapinoe, have come out of the closet that Griner’s revelation was greeted with a yawn.
That’s the way such news should always be treated and someday will. But not just yet, at least not in male professional sports, especially team sports. It’s still hard for society to accept that one can play a “manly” sport, especially one with a lot of violent physical contact, and be gay.
“The kids these days,” Archie moans to the hulking Steve on All in the Family. “They got no respect for the old institutions.”
“What institutions?” Steve asks.
“You know, sports, sportsmanship, guts, guns. The things that separate the sexes,” Archie said.
The rapid acceptance of homosexuality as just another fact of life by a growing number of Americans, and the overwhelming majority of young people, would have floored Archie Bunker. So would the slow realization that sports, sportsmanship, guts and even a fondness for guns, do not a gender define. Jason Collins came out, and perhaps by doing so he will save the life of a young gay man contemplating suicide, or lead others in sports and public life to do so.
Each revelation will erase a bit of the stigma that still haunts homosexuality and hinders the steady progression of full equality for all.