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Zero to Hero: How the Media has Changed its Perspective on Gay Athletes

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Zero to Hero: How the Media has Changed its Perspective on Gay Athletes

Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports Images

By now everyone in America has heard of Jason Collins’ signing with the Brooklyn Nets a year removed from declaring he’s gay, and Michael Sam’s coming out announcement before the NFL draft.

Thus far, Collins appears to have made a smooth (if extremely over-televised) transition back into the NBA, though it remains to be seen for how long he will be sticking around. It was reported that the Spurs will keep him for the rest of the 2013-14 season after signing him to two 10-day contracts. We have yet to see how Michael Sam’s draft stock will be effected, and how he would be received in a locker room.

But what everyone seems to be forgetting is that neither Collins nor Sam are the first to ever have this distinction. How could that be? Well, the first time around, no one wanted to hear it.

Needless to say, it didn’t go well.

Glenn Burke’s Story: Inventor of the High-five?

Glenn Burke

April 9, 1976, a gregarious outfielder by the name of Glenn Burke makes his debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers. A fun-loving, outgoing guy generally loved by his teammates, Burke said he was “sure his teammates didn’t care” about him being gay. They didn’t. Davey Lopes, a Dodger 2nd baseman, said: “When we’d land at airports, there’d always be guys waiting for Glenn. . . Didn’t matter to us. We loved him.”

Burke in an interview with People magazine in 1995 said: “They can’t ever say now that a gay man can’t play in the majors, because I’m a gay man and I made it.”

The problem was, when this became apparent to the press in the 1970s, no one in the media wanted to hear it. No one applauded his bravery or got on a pedestal to shout his story. Everyone ignored it because they had no idea how to handle such a story and didn’t care to be involved in such a ‘scandal’. What sports journalist would risk their job for something no one wanted to know?

So the story was ignored. Burke went on to try and continue his career. GM Al Campanis tried to bribe Burke with $75,000 in exchange for a public marriage. Burke supposedly retorted, “to a woman?” The conflict didn’t end there. Dodgers manager’s son, Tommy Lasorda Jr. was gay and became friends with Burke. Lasorda Sr. was opposed to them spending time with each other, though he would later deny it. The Dodgers would trade Burke to the Oakland Athletics for Billy North. Burke was introduced to the team by his new manager as a homophobic six-letter slur starting with the letter F. Burke suffered a knee injury before the 1980 season and was sent to the minor leagues where his career would end, despite being a remarkable talent with much untapped potential. He struggled with hard drugs after his career was over.

Perhaps his greatest legacy, which shows just how absurd history can be, is the high-five. That’s right, Glenn Burke, the first openly gay athlete in sports, is credited with inventing the high five. In 1977, Dodgers outfielder Dusty Baker hit his 30th home run on the last day of the season. Burke ran out onto the field in celebration with his hand over his head. Baker, unsure of what to do, slapped his open hand. This isn’t a joke, before the 70s high-fives weren’t the omnipresent social act they are now.

Months before he died from AIDS in 1995, Burke told the New York Times “prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have.” Before his death, he published his memoirs entitled Out at Home: The Glenn Burke Story and was speaking to media in an attempt to spread his story.

Still, no one remembers. That was only two decades ago. So that begs the question, why is so much hoopla being made now that gay athletes are coming out? Quite simply, maybe we are ready to hear it (at least, partially; there will probably always be some opposition).

The Gay Athlete in Today’s Sports World

Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports Images

Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports Images

Okay, so the media is ready to bust out the trumpets and wave the banners and herald a new age of acceptance. Awesome, high-fives all around, (hah!) let’s do this. But still, there is the question of the teams themselves, the players, the organizations. Let’s take a journey down hypothetical road for a moment. Let’s say the Dolphins never have the Incognito-Martin scandal, and they’re on the board in the fifth round, and need a linebacker with Michael Sam still available. Don’t you think the team would be worried about the inevitable explosion that would occur from a no-filter, trash-talking veteran lineman like Incognito and a media-beloved openly gay rookie? My bet is they would pass on him.

Granted, that’s one scenario. But football is a violent game that endears itself to mean, hard-nosed, rough around the edges players. You don’t really think Miami would’ve put up with Incognito if he weren’t an effective lineman? The truth is, we don’t know which players might have reservations about openly gay athletes and aren’t speaking loudly to the media about it.

It’s clear that as a society we are far more receptive to the idea of openly gay athletes than ever before. That’s not to say it’s going to go off without a hitch. Inevitably conflict will arise and someone’s beliefs or opinions will be forcefully interjected. For perspective though, in the 70s when Glenn Burke came out, no one in the media wanted to publicly support him, probably for fear of being ostracized. ┬áToday, no one in the sports media (as far as I’ve seen, anyway) has gone on to say they disapprove of openly gay athletes, which means one of two things: either miraculously none of them disapprove of homosexuality, or none of them want to say it for fear of being ostracized. We’ve come a long way from the 70s, haven’t we?

It must’ve been an enormous struggle for Jason Collins, and he deserves the praise he gets for coming forth into the social spotlight, for now he can no longer retreat to obscurity; he will forever have to live with the inevitable hate and criticism that will befall him. It will be an even longer road for Michael Sam, who has to begin his career in one of the most conservative and violent team sports in the world. We shall see how sports history views these individuals in the future; let’s hope they don’t suffer the same fate as Glenn Burke.

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