Bill Russell Sees Parallels Between Race and Sexual Orientation in Sports

I don’t have a lot of heroes but Bill Russell might qualify. He’s not only one of the greatest basketball players ever, he’s also a man who showed tremendous courage and integrity in dealing with racial backlash in Boston, at the time one of the more racist cities in the country. And he says that the battles of gay athletes today mirror his experiences:

NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell said Wednesday that gay athletes’ current fight for equality and acceptance reminds him of some of the same struggles black athletes faced in the 1960s.

Russell, who won 11 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, said talk about whether gay athletes can be good teammates or if they might disrupt locker rooms are the same questions black athletes heard years ago, when colleges and professional leagues were struggling with the concept of integration.

“It seems to me, a lot of questions about gay athletes, were the same questions they used to ask about us,” Russell said during a panel discussion at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, which is hosting a summit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

Russell said he would have only one question about a gay teammate: Can he play?

I recently watched the movie ’42’ about the great Jackie Robinson and it’s really shocking now to see how he was mistreated and abused by racist teammates, journalists and opposing players. I think we will look back on today and think the same thing about the treatment of gay athletes.

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  • Kevin Kehres

    Except I’m not sure there are instances of gay players being abused … at least not on the professional level.

    At the high school level, where every missed tackle is a sign that someone is a f**, sure. High school sucks on so many levels and this is one of them. Immature players, coaches who might not be the sharpest tools in the shed, and on and on. And that might not even be targeting the gay players, but the weaker players (not the same thing by a country mile).

    At the college level, depending on the program, probably to maybe. But professionally? Haven’t seen it.

    I’m trying to come up with an example where a gay player — closeted or not — was treated with abuse or otherwise demeaned from within the professional ranks. Seems to me that the vast majority of the comments I’ve heard about this issue have been of the “so what?” nature. In the past, there were gay players that people KNEW were gay, but it just didn’t matter — because they could play.

    And I haven’t seen anyone in any setting other than the far-right fringe complaining about gay players who recently came out. Nor have I heard anyone demean an individual based on his/her orientation within the ranks of any sporting organization. Seems to me to have turned out to be as big a non-issue as it should be.

    If I’m wrong about this, I’m happy to be corrected. But I follow the sports news, and the universal reaction I’ve seen lately from within the sporting community to someone coming out is “what’s his time in the 40?”, not “OMG!!! I’m going to catch teh gey!!! SHOWERS!11eleventy!!”

    I think Russell and Jackie Robinson and other pioneers had it far worse. In part because there’s no hiding being black; and because racism was legally institutionalized when they were coming up, and segregation was brutally enforced well into the 1960s.

    And to a large extent, I think their struggles are responsible in large measure to the change in attitudes today. Nothing matters except your ability to play and work together in a team structure.

    The gum-flapping is all coming from outside the sporting community. And those people can be ignored or told to take a long walk off a short pier.

  • John Pieret

    The gum-flapping is all coming from outside the sporting community.

    The league organizations can read the polls and I’m sure there have been dire warnings to the players to keep any prejudice/religious animus to themselves. Whether that will hold behind closed locker room doors may be another matter. Professional athletes are not overly known for their maturity and restraint (Richie Incognito, anyone?). The fans can be brutal too.

    I agree that it will probably be less than what Russell went through and certainly less than what Jackie Robinson faced, but I doubt it will be zero. It’s good that Russell reminds everyone that it should be zero.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    I recently watched the movie ’42′ about the great Jackie Robinson…

    Skip the sequel. Movie 43 is awful. On the plus side, it has no baseball.

  • mojave66

    Kevin, read up on Glenn Burke.

  • Michael Heath

    I eagerly await our morally progressing to the point where we start directing far more of our condemnation of bigotry unto evangelical, fundamentalist, Mormon, Islamic, Catholic and other sects who abuse gay children.

    So while I’m giddy about the progress we’re making in the public square and private venues like in sports, we still avoid protecting the most vulnerable among us. Most of us don’t even realize or avoid acknowledging the existence of this sort of insidious abuse.

    It’s getting better, and that’s simply because conservative Christian discrimination against adult gays and their bullying of gays in public venues is becoming increasingly condemned as the culture begins to acknowledge gay people as equals. But the religionists are still condemning homosexuality and non-traditional sexual identifications in their churches, leaving non-heterosexual children with no sanctuary in church and open to the abuse, hatred, and discrimination spewed forth by fundie parents and church authorities.

    We’ll become a moral people when we actually protect the, ‘least among us’.