- Howard Bryant, Senior Writer
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Henry Aaron didn't remember the day or the year, but he remembered the moment very clearly. It was the late 1950s, before the civil rights movement had an actual name, before it was considered a movement at all. He was on the team bus with the Milwaukee Braves, reading a newspaper article about the latest front in what would ultimately be a successful war on American segregation.
The Hall of Famer sitting next to him, Warren Spahn, would win 363 big league games, the most by any left-hander in the history of baseball. Spahn fought in World War II, in Germany, in the famous Battle of the Bulge, where the U.S. suffered an estimated 75,000 casualties, including 19,000 dead, and was perplexed by the increasingly daily stories of freedom marches, lunch counter sit-ins, bus boycotts.
"Henry," Spahn said to Aaron, "just what is it you people want, anyway?"
Now that it is done, and Jason Collins is free and exposed, the hard work actually begins. It is a process, incidentally, that has virtually nothing to do with Collins. What happens in the next several months and years will say more about American society and its boundaries of acceptance than it ever could about Jason Collins, or Kirk Walker and Kevin McClatchy before him, or Martina Navratilova (who came out in 1981, three years after Collins was born) before all of them.
Now that it is done, the answer to Spahn's question is just as pertinent today as it was then, if not phrased more delicately. What Aaron wanted for his people was full, not token, membership at the table. It is the thing Navratilova and Billie Jean King wanted for women and gays, which is the same thing Collins hopes will happen for the long-closeted and shunned gay male in team-sport athletics. If the demand seems monumental, it is really nothing more than every American has wanted since Paul Revere's ride.
So much of the story exists by degree, so much heavy lifting having already been done in the past waiting for someone -- it just so turned out to be Collins -- to provide the exclamation point. Former Massachusetts U.S. Representative Barney Frank came out in 1987. Portland elected a gay mayor in 2008 and Houston did so the following year. Gay marriage is tenuous, but it does exist in nine states and the District of Columbia. Two years ago, while working in the Phoenix Suns front office, Rick Welts came out as the first openly gay NBA executive. Two years after President Barack Obama ended the country's nefarious "don't ask, don't tell" military policy, professional men's team sports -- the country's other macho domain -- must finally face the reality that momentum toward the Open Era has been building for years.
Yet despite the inevitability of progress and momentum, it all comes with certain levels of shading: Jason Collins, as of today, does not have a job for next season. Already, as the euphoria subsides, the expected backlash can be felt from religious objections about sexual orientation to the simmering resentment among some members of the African-American community angry that the struggle for gay rights is constantly (and to them, unfairly and insultingly) compared to civil rights.
The triumph of his courage has been accompanied by parries of resistance, some subtle (Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson and Boston Celtics guard Courtney Lee, whose carefully chosen words suggested, if nothing else, caution on the subject); others obvious (Miami Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace); others obliquely cowardly; and still others using words that are publicly discredited but privately accepted.
The clamor should be expected, because doors don't swing open easily. Nor should we expect they will, if we have any memory of the past. It is important to remember the difference between being out and being accepted, between walking through the door of the building and becoming a member of the club, and how many years it takes historically to bridge the two. This is just the start.
When the Collins news broke on Monday, the first person who came to mind was the deposed and disgraced Rutgers men's basketball coach Mike Rice. Rice may not appear to be relevant at first glance, but he represents a pivotal figure in the drama, for the language of coaches and in men's sports, now that a gay player is out (and others certainly will follow) must change, the same way racial and ethnic slurs have generally disappeared as acceptable speech.
Racial slurs from teammates, rivals, and managers during the first several years of integration were commonplace, but that was three-quarters of a century ago. Gay players are going to absorb uncomfortable moments, lest they be accused, as Jackie Robinson incredibly once was, of not being tough enough to handle the fight. Today, however, in a world of equal protection under the law and social media and hopefully a bit more enlightenment, the transition of using gay slurs to identify weakness will be discredited faster.
Upon Collins' announcement, Ray Allen of the Miami Heat said he did not believe it would alter the locker room culture of how players joke and speak to one another. It may be an easier transition for players, who rib one another, either as teammates or to unnerve an opponent, than for those coaches, the face of management, who use homophobic slurs to motivate players.
This will be especially true in college, where the players have no financial or union protections. Rice's verbal abuse on his players seemed common. Throwing a basketball at them did not. The question will become one of enforcement on the part of schools, leagues and teams and how they react in real time to abusive players, coaches, execs or fans.
The public culture of sports also will be challenged immediately. We'll be able to evaluate inclusion, from whether the significant other of a gay player sitting in the crowd at a big game receives the same camera treatment and identification as wives and girlfriends and other family members, to whether teams reach out to gay spouses for charity work and public events as they do straight. The level of interest from Madison Avenue, and whether Collins signs with another team, will be closely watched.
Whether other gay players -- especially those who are more talented, more marketable, with more to lose -- even choose to follow Collins into the glare also will speak volumes. Then there is the breaking of barriers into coaching, management and ownership. To use a baseball phrase, this game is only in the bottom of the first inning.
There is no turning back from the Open Era, and the battle will continue in the space between Jason Collins and the day that subsequent announcements are greeted not as a historic first but just another personal note. Ultimately, a seat at the table stems from being American, and the willingness -- no different from Spahn in those bloody days in Germany -- to fight for its principles. Like the African-American soldiers during both World Wars attempting to prove their worth through death for their country, the enlisting of gay soldiers was the beginning of the old order crumbling. The dissolution of "don't ask, don't tell" was next, leading indirectly to the death of the sports world thinking it could avoid the day that is now here, the days that are coming and must be confronted. When a people are willing to fight and die for the American ideal, the ideal must at some point give something back.
What happens over the next months and years will say more about American society and its boundaries of acceptance than it ever could about Jason Collins or Kirk Walker or Kevin McClatchy or Martina Navratilova.