By Ken Reed

Moviegoers applaud at the end of 42 – the emotional tale about Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in Major League Baseball – as well they should. It’s an inspiring story of the triumph of social justice.

But as people file out of theaters across the country, there’s also a palpable sense of hope; hope that the things said, and behaviors displayed, in 42 are a thing of the past.

From a civil rights perspective, society has certainly evolved for the better, relative to the America Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey had to deal with in 1947.

Nevertheless, we’re still fighting civil rights battles on multiple fronts today. Institutional racism remains a reality in organizations of different types and sizes. And while Title IX has given girls and women opportunities in the world of sports that were unthinkable 40 years ago, females still fall well short of equality on all pertinent Title IX metrics. In the pro sports world, the number of minorities in management and ownership positions remains miniscule.

Moreover, the civil rights issue of the day is the battle for equal rights for gay Americans.

Progress in this area is being made on several fronts, including marriage equality. Yet, within our four major professional sports leagues, the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL, a locker room culture of Stone Age machismo continues to proliferate around the topic of gay athletes.

To date, no active gay athlete has come out in our major pro sports leagues. None have felt comfortable enough with the current environment. Who can blame them, given the homophobic climate surrounding pro sports teams today?

During the lead up to this year’s Super Bowl, San Francisco 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver said he was against having a gay teammate in the locker room. Moreover, he said that if the 49ers did have any gay players, they should leave. In 2012, Maryland state delegate Emmett Burns, Jr. wrote an open letter to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, asking that the owner require Ravens’ linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo to stop publicly supporting marriage equality for gays. Last season, Los Angeles Lakers’ star Kobe Bryant was fined for calling a referee a “f—— f—–.”

Not quite the neighborhood welcoming committee.

Another consideration for any gay athletes who currently play in one of the Big Four leagues and are thinking about coming out is the behavior of sports fans – especially those with beers in their hands. Fans are notorious for being verbally abusive at games, and occasionally throwing items on the field. They feel their game ticket gives them license to say and do what they want. As such, can you imagine what the first openly gay athlete may have to endure?

The release of 42 at this particular time is valuable in at least three important ways: 1) for younger generations, it’s a great educational experience about a pivotal time in our history (and a nice review for the rest of us); 2) it powerfully displays the ugliness of discrimination; and 3) perhaps most importantly, it’s the perfect primer for every American as we approach a landmark development in our culture: the first openly gay active professional athlete in a major American team sport.

Hopefully, when that first gay athlete does comes out, the fact 42 will have been seen by millions of Americans prior will help us avoid repeating the type of disturbing incidents that characterized Robinson’s first season in Brooklyn.

As Edmund Burke famously said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Undoubtedly, it will take courage, on the part of all of us, to not stand passively on the sideline if we witness discrimination against the first openly gay athlete – or athletes – in team sports.

“The greatest commandment in the Bible,” said Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, in his 2011 commencement speech at Washington University, “is ‘Thou shall not stand idly by.’ Which means when you witness an injustice, don’t stand idly by. When you hear of a person or a group being persecuted, do not stand idly by. When there is something wrong in the community around you — or far away — do not stand idly by.”

Let us all vow to not stand idly by and allow the hideous way human beings treated fellow human beings in 42 to happen again when an NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB player chooses to come out publicly.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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