Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Is America, and Pro Sports, Really Ready for Active Gay Players?

So Jason Collins, the 7-foot NBA center, is gay. His ground-breaking declaration came in a Sports Illustrated article published Monday. And yes, it's 2013 and times have changed, as the jubilation across the country, and among several prominent players, has demonstrated. But once we get past the hoopla and the effusive praise for the pioneering 34-year-old currently with the Washington Wizards, the real question remains: what does his historic coming-out mean for him, the NBA, pro sports and society as a whole?

First let's get the good stuff out of the way. Many of the league's biggest stars, including Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, quickly came out in support of Collins. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter were abuzz with viral praise over his courageous decision. Michelle Obama  tweeted "So proud of you Jason Collins! This is a huge step forward for our country. We've got your back!" It's hard to ignore the powerful symbolism behind America's first black First Lady rallying behind the nation's first openly gay, and black, active pro athlete. 

But as Ms. Obama knows all too well, while her husband Barack has broken through tremendous racial barriers in becoming the country's first black president, it certainly did little to erase the ugliness of prejudice and racism. In fact, there are those who'd argue that his presidency has fanned the racist flames for many, perhaps as evidenced by the unprecedented partisan gridlock in Washington and by the most blatant disrespect ever shown a sitting U.S. president (see Rep. Joe Wilson's "You Lie!" shout during Obama's September 2009 speech to Congress).

While there indeed were those welcoming the newly minted gay Collins with open arms, ignorance and intolerance surfaced as well. On ESPN, NBA analyst Chris Broussard called homosexuality "an open rebellion to God" and implied that gay people can't be Christians."I'm a Christian. I don't agree with homosexuality. I think it's a sin, as I think all sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman is. If you're openly living in unrepentant sin ... that's walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ."        

And Mike Wallace of the NFL's Miami Dolphins tweeted "All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys."  Wallace's and Broussard's comments--like Karl Malone's ignorant rant in 1992 when Magic Johnson announced he'd contracted H.I.V--differ in definition and motivation, but they echo the common thinking among many Americans.  Wallace and Broussard are just two jerks dumb enough to voice what millions more in the silent minority are no doubt thinking. The truth is, professional sports is but a microcosm of the nation, and the social patterns that exist in society overall will be on display as the Collins story continues to unfold.  

To be sure, religion is going to play a key role as Collins' coming-out takes shape, as players (many of whom pray on court before games) and coaches' (Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson is a pastor with his own ministry) personal faith muddies the debate...just as it does outside professional sports. Ignorance, fear and machismo will surely continue to permeate locker rooms. It would be incredibly naive to think that the majority of professional athletes, many of whom come from poor, uneducated, deeply religious and intolerant environments, won't look at Collins' with a jaundiced eye, or believe that he's looking at them with a lascivious one. There's simply way too much nudity in locker rooms for that not to happen. The 'catching Aids from a toilet seat' mentality isn't disappearing simply because Collins decided to come out.

The real test of America's true progress, and the NBA's acceptance, will be in whether Collins, who becomes a free agent July 1, will be suiting up for a team come opening night next season. "If he's not on a team, he's just another guy who did it at the end of his career, and he retired," said Jim Buzinski, co-founder of Outsports, an online site covering gays and sports. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

True Change Requires More Than Belting Out the National Anthem

Let me begin with full disclosure: My wife was brutally murdered in 2006, so I know first-hand what devastating shock and grief feels like. As such, the horrific tragedy in Boston this week conjures up my own profound sense of loss and anger. Besides, my daughter lives there. Perhaps by luck or fate she was thankfully nowhere near the deadly Marathon bombings.

I have nothing but sadness and empathy for the city, its citizens and for the families of those who lost their lives, their limbs, their innocence. That America once again has fallen victim to such reprehensible, violent acts of pure cowardice is yet another painful reminder of our new reality. Like New York, Washington and Pennsylvania in 2001, I suspect Boston, and it's tough, gritty, proud residents, will bounce back strongly and with great patriotic fervor.

I watched the incredible demonstration of such patriotism at Wednesday's Boston Bruins game as 20,000 emotional fans delivered a roaring rendition of our national anthem...sending goosebumps, chills and tears throughout TD Garden and living rooms everywhere. Americans, in time of such great  tragedy, can be truly awe-inspiring in their unity and resolve. But is that enough? Is it enough to belt out the national anthem for a few days and then return to business as usual? Is that the best. most meaningful representation of patriotism we can harness?

It's been four months since the horrific Sandy Hook school massacre and, as shamefully evidenced in the U.S. Senate this week, we're still without any new gun control measures. Furthermore, we live in a country where certain groups still seek to deny rights to minorities, women and gays. Our national anthem stands for freedom. Our Pledge of Allegiance promises with liberty and justice for all. To voice these words should be to believe them.

To be sure, it's terribly easy for any of us to get swept up by emotion, frustration and anger and voice it all through these patriotic verses....and then be done with it. But the real commitment, the real effort, the real showing of empathy and concern for our fellow citizens must come the next day, the day after that, and the days, weeks, months and years that follow. It can't be done in one 90-second chorus. If, as a people, we truly believe in the words behind our national anthem and Pledge, then perhaps, when the game's over, we should do whatever is humanly possibly to protect our citizens from further violence and discrimination by pushing for meaningful legislation and outreach. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What the Boston Attack Means for America

As of this writing there have been no arrests made, no persons of interest announced by authorities and no terrorist organizations claiming responsibility for Monday's Boston Marathon bombings which killed three people (including an 8-year-old boy) and injured more than 100. The powerful blast left Boylston Street resembling a bloodied, limb-strewn war-zone, and sent shockwaves through this New England city and across the nation. The carnage, even for seasoned first responders, was horrific.

The attack was a stunning surprise. No prior warnings had been received nor had the typical pre-attack  terrorist cell chatter been evident, according to law enforcement and homeland security spokespeople. The two devastating explosions quickly turned the city's annual Patriot's Day celebration into a tainted landscape of shrapnel, fear and death. The city, the marathon and Americans everywhere have been dealt a terrible blow, which brings right back to the surface the chilling events of September 11, 2001.

It's been twelve years since the horrifying 9/11 attacks which killed 3000 in New York City, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania. Since then the country's been lulled into a false sense of security. With no further attacks, the intense fear and anxiety of that period subsided after a few short years, leaving Americans feeling relatively safe and secure. To be sure, Monday's attack in Boston serves as a tragic reminder of our collective vulnerability. It's making us painfully aware of the risks we face in this ugly new world simply by being a runner, a Marathon watcher, a parade-goer... or perhaps by one day being in a grocery store, movie theater, nightclub, sports arena, school, office building, subway or airport when a terrorist--domestic or international--will decide to send a sick, ghastly message.

We now must accept the reality that more bombings are likely. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but in the not-too-distant-future. Those who commit acts of terror don't need much to bring a neighborhood, a city and even the nation to its knees. Will America eventually become like Israel, whose hardened citizens face each day knowing it could very well be their last at the hands of a terrorist and his explosives-filled backpack? While it certainly doesn't lessen the impact of Monday's tragedy, let's hope that it was an isolated, non-political crime committed by a lone-wolf wacko who was off his meds and angry at his former employer. Maybe that will be easier to accept. But it doesn't change our new reality of how some people now vent their hatred and rage. In the end, while it doesn't matter whether it's a Taliban-supported al-Qaeda cell or an unaffiliated malcontent, our ultimate fear and loss of innocence, is just the same.    


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Making the Case for Anthony Weiner

New York. The greatest city in the world. It deserves a mayor with spunk, moxie, chutzpah, balls (pun intended)....who might even be a bit of a dick (intended pun #2). A colorful character in the tradition of Wagner, La Guardia, Koch, Giuliani and Bloomberg. Someone not afraid to speak his mind and stand up for what he believes in, regardless of popularity or political expediency  And that's why Anthony Weiner should be the city's next mayor.

Ok, so there's that little Twitter problem. We get it. The man did something incredibly stupid and texted photos of his e-shlong to young women. But ya know what? Show me a married New Yorker who hasn't flirted in some fashion or another with a member of the opposite sex. If we're to trust Weiner (I still marvel at the symbiosis of his name and scandal) and believe that he never actually had sex with any of these women, then his crimes are not as onerous as, say, those of former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who resigned in 2009 after he went AWOL in Argentina chasing his mistress while his aides claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. And how did that state's deeply religious voters ultimately punish him for his lying and cheating? They handed him a Republican primary run-off victory earlier this month in his bid to win election to Congress. I suspect New York's less-than-perfect, non-judgemental voters will forgive and forget Weiner's virtual indiscretions as well. And it appears Weiner believes so too. He's been out there polling to gauge his chances, which he's intimated are strong.  

The other Democrats in the race, including front runner and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, are respectable, decent, well-credentialed people. But are they the bright lights of the big city? In many ways, New York city is like a circus, and its mayor the ringmaster. Weiner would wear that costume well. With his big brash personality, dogged persistence, congressional resume and millions in the bank, he could easily leap to the front of the pack should he make his announcement by the June 10 deadline. If he does, I suggest the following campaign slogan: Anthony Weiner: He ain't dickin' around...