I have a friend who explains the cruel and stupid things we do to one another by saying, “We’re not very highly evolved.”
Fair enough. But this week perhaps we can be grateful for a bit of evidence that all is not backward and hopeless. When Jason Collins announced on Monday that he was gay it was a big deal because no active male athlete in one of the major sports had previously taken that step.
But it was not as big a deal as it would have been had the ground for this announcement not been so thoroughly prepared. The most recent manifestations of that preparation have come from individual athletes who’ve made ads in favor of inclusion — ads that specifically characterized the bullying of gays as cowardly and contemptible. The National Hockey League’s partnership with the You Can Play campaign has established the NHL as the most progressive of the men’s leagues in terms of gay citizens. Times are such that when an individual athlete witlessly tweets something derogatory about a particular gay man or gays in general, an apology follows almost before the offending tweet can be deleted.
The apology may not be sincere, but the fact that it’s deemed necessary means that the world of men’s pro sports has come a significant distance since the late Reggie White, 13 times an NFL Pro Bowl pick and a fundamentalist minister, made a second career of attacking gays as “ungodly” and homosexuality as “a sin that had been allowed to run rampant.” When he died at 43, just nine years ago, White was celebrated by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as “a gentle warrior” who “served as a positive influence for so many young people” — as long as those young people weren’t gay, or were gay and didn’t mind being characterized as sinners.
That the anti-gay hatred Reggie White espoused, sometimes while wearing his Packers uniform, would not be tolerated today let alone celebrated, is a sign of the sort of progress that set the stage for Jason Collins’s announcement. Elite female athletes from Martina Navratilova (whom the president neglected to call when she came out in 1981) to Brittney Griner have also helped to set that stage, as have myriad gay and lesbian activists and supporters of specific rights such as gay marriage.
None of this is meant to minimize what Jason Collins has done, but only to see his announcement as part of a movement toward equal rights and equal treatment that quietly suggests that, at least with respect to the issue of gay citizens, although we may not be very highly evolved, we are capable of evolving.