Collins’ decision part of growing acceptance of gay athletes

Dave Garcia played sports in high school — basketball, baseball and track — and the atmosphere was horribly homophobic. He said coaches used the term “sissy” and an even harsher gay slur to describe a weak player or a poor performance.

Without knowing it, by using those terms, they were ripping into the core of his being.

He felt all alone. Was he the only gay person playing team sports?

“You start to feel like the only one,” said Garcia, 38, who grew up in Swartz Creek. “Am I the only gay person who is on this sports team? That is playing this sport? When I was a kid, I didn’t have any major sports heroes who were out (of the closet). It’s important for young people to have role models.”

To know they aren’t alone.

Washington Wizards center Jason Collins started to change that Monday when he became the first active athlete from one of the four major professional sports leagues to announce that he’s gay. He came out in a first-person essay posted on Sports Illustrated’s website. He said, in part: “I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.”

It was a monumental day. Praise and support poured in from around the country. From the White House. From players in all sports. From gay and lesbian activists. From high school students who said: “Seriously. What’s the big deal?” Indeed, the real world, where there are gay and lesbian groups that meet regularly in high schools, and the sports world have been disconnected.

Many had been waiting for this moment for years.

It is foolish to think there aren’t scores of athletes in all the major sports who are gay. But they have stayed silent until now. Until they have left the sport. Afraid of the ramifications. Afraid of being ostracized. Afraid of being attacked.

They were forced to live a lie.

“I wish I would have had this day when I was a kid,” Garcia said. “But I’m not surprised. Most people 40 or younger are thinking, ‘What’s the big deal? Why has it taken this long?’

“I’m hopeful this isn’t the end and we will see more and more athletes come out.”

Garcia now is the executive director of Affirmations, a community center based in Ferndale that serves the lesbian, gay, bisexual and the transgender community in southeast Michigan.

He sees things changing. Slowly. Across all of society.

Just as it has changed, slowly, when it comes to race.

“The Jackie Robinson movie just came out, what, two weeks ago?” Garcia asked. “Everybody seems to be on the right side of that now, but they certainly weren’t 50 years ago.”

Locker room reaction

So this is the new normal.

Finally, a pro athlete has come out of the closet.

Finally, somebody had enough courage to stop the lies and speak the truth.

But this is only at the start of this story.

How will this play out in the locker room?

“The one place that is probably more macho than pro sports in our country is the U.S. military and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been overturned,” Garcia said. “Things have gone just fine in the military and there is no reason to think it won’t go just fine in sports.”

Will it be easy? Of course not.

Change is a complicated, confusing process.

It’s painful but necessary.

Charles Pugh, the president of the Detroit City Council, who came out in 2004, urged the NBA to do sensitivity training.

“I hope the NBA commissioner uses this as an opportunity,” Pugh said. “It’s not one single man doing one act. It should be an opportunity for the NBA to grow and all players to feel welcome.”

But still, Pugh acknowledges that it can be uncomfortable for everybody on both sides of the issue.

“I’m not going to try to imagine what it would be like to be straight and here you are, in a locker room and you are undressing or in the shower and you don’t know if somebody is going to hit on you,” Pugh said. “We in the LGBT community have to be sensitive to that as well for the discomfort straight people might feel.

“That’s why I think sensitivity training is important. There may be players who are not homophobic but still feel uncomfortable. These are legitimate concerns.”

Next step: A big name

Collins should be applauded. For his courage. For his strength.

But let’s be honest. Collins is not a star player.

The next step will be a superstar coming out.

And then, the next step after that is a pro team that will draft a college player who is already out of the closet.

Or a pro team that will sign a gay free agent.

“I don’t mean to show any disrespect to what he’s done, but I, personally, as a sports fan, I can’t wait for a superstar,” Garcia said. “I’m looking forward to the starting shortstop or the starting quarterback or the heavyweight champion of the world. It’s only a matter of a year or two before we have a superstar come out.”

So this is progress. Long overdue progress.

But it’s only the start.

“I hope this has an impact across high school sports,” Garcia said. “I think it will. Fifty years from now, people will look back on this and say, ‘What was the big deal?’ ”


Posted by Tribune News Services

Leave a Reply