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The fans in Brooklyn’s sold-out Barclays Center began chanting his name a few minutes after the tipoff of Monday night’s game between the Nets and Chicago Bulls. The chants continued sporadically from that point on and erupted into a thunderous standing ovation when backup Nets center Jason Collins finally entered the contest with two minutes and 41 seconds remaining.
He managed a rebound and a steal in his brief work shift. But the stat sheet failed to reveal the historical symmetry and significance of the night, because there at the new arena on Flatbush Avenue—just a few miles down the road from where Jackie Robinson helped integrate baseball 67 years earlier—Collins had made his home-court debut as the first openly gay athlete in any of North America’s four major sports leagues.
After the Nets’ 96-80 victory, former NBA Commissioner David Stern told reporters: “I hope someday we can say to somebody, ‘I was there,’ and they’ll ask, ‘What are you talking about?’ because this is really about sports catching up with America.”
When Robinson stepped onto the baseball diamond at Ebbets Field on April 14, 1947, it was just the opposite. It was about America catching up with sports.
Robinson did not receive the warm reception Collins did. Far from it. Yes, Jackie was applauded lustily that day by the scores of African-Americans seated in the restricted “coloreds only” section of the ballpark. But according to books chronicling that seminal moment in baseball and American history, the majority of the white fans were ambivalent and somewhat ill at ease because of the number of blacks in attendance. Quite frankly, many of the white fans didn’t know what to make of the black man in the bright, white flannels of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The reception Robinson received on the road would be much worse, as he was subjected to threats of physical harm and a torrent of epithets, on and off the field. The hatred came not only from the fans, but also from players, coaches and managers, including some wearing Dodgers uniforms.
It was a different, less tolerant America, to be sure. But Robinson endured the living hell and paved the way not only for Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Derek Jeter and other African-Americans to play the game they loved at the highest level, but also for the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. said the work he and his peers did to bring about racial equality would not have been possible without Jackie Robinson leading the way by taking a baseball bat to bigotry.
It clearly has taken courage for Collins to come out, because while we are a much more tolerant society than we were in 1947, there is still much hatred directed at members of the LBGT community, particularly in the occasionally Neanderthal world of sports. But sports are finally catching up with America nearly seven decades after America had to catch up to sports.
Bills and Toronto
Whoa, Canada! I was happy to hear the Buffalo Bills’ Toronto series has been postponed for the upcoming season. I just wished it would be sacked in future years, too. I understood why owner Ralph Wilson felt compelled to play one regular-season game there each year during the first five years of the agreement. Canadian conglomerate Rogers Communications was paying the Bills a king’s ransom—twice what they took in playing the annual game at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park.
But under the extension signed last year, the team isn’t realizing much more than it would playing the game at the Ralph, so it doesn’t make business sense anymore. And it never made football sense to give away the home-field advantage and play games in a sterile environment like the Rogers Centre, where there were as many non-Bills fans and empty seats as there were Bills fans. Buffalo’s home-away-from-home experiment resulted in one win in six tries.
The venue played a role in last December’s overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons, a team that plays all of its home games indoors and would have been at a distinct disadvantage if forced to contend with the wintry elements at the Ralph instead of the cozy, climate-controlled conditions of the dome-roofed Rogers Centre.
To me, there always was something wrong about taking any games away from the Ralph. It was an insult to the team’s fan base and to New York taxpayers, who have shelled out millions of corporate welfare dollars to renovate Wilson’s playpen and enhance the value of his NFL franchise, which some estimates put as high as $800 million. Toronto series or not, people from Southern Ontario will still flock by the thousands to Bills games at Orchard Park, and Toronto’s corporate advertising dollars will continue to flow south of the border.
It won’t be long before tens of millions of Americans jump into the pool—the office pool, that is—and fill out their NCAA basketball brackets. After Syracuse University’s late-season swoon, I’m sure a lot of bracketologists won’t have the Orange going deep into the tournament.
Admittedly, their chances don’t look good, especially if dynamic sophomore forward Jerami Grant’s back continues to act up.
Just a word of caution: Last year, SU suffered an even worse face-plant during the stretch run of the regular season, and that team wound up reaching the Final Four. The point is you never know when you’re dealing with young men barely old enough to shave. So as dire as things may seem, don’t count ’em out yet.
Joe Namath recently donned the New York Yankees pinstripes and threw out the ceremonial first pitch at an exhibition game. Broadway Joe was an outstanding high school baseball player and was offered a contract to turn pro. But his mother overruled him. She wanted him to get a college education. So Namath accepted Alabama’s football scholarship offer and led Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide to a national championship before gaining football immortality by following through on his guarantee of a Jets Super Bowl victory in 1969.
Scott Pitoniak is an award-winning columnist and best-selling author.
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