COURSEY: Opening the door of the 'last closet'

A major motion picture opens today across the country about an athlete breaking through the barriers of discrimination and using sports to spearhead changes throughout society.

"42" is the story of Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became the first black player to swing a bat in Major League Baseball.

The timing of this movie is fortuitous, because it reminds us that 66 years later the barriers of discrimination still stand in professional sports.

Not for blacks, so much, or for Latinos or Asians – all of whom fill roster spots throughout the Major Leagues. Ethnicity, once a firm line that couldn't be crossed in baseball and other major pro sports, isn't the issue any more.

Sexual preference has become the next frontier.

A story on today's Page 1 from the New York Times says the National Hockey League has declared it will fully support any player who decides to reveal his homosexuality, and the league also will institute training and counseling programs on gay issues for its teams and players.

This is Page 1 news because no athlete has ever revealed his homosexuality while playing for a professional American hockey, football, basketball or baseball team. Some have come out after retiring, but not a single one has been willing to publically acknowledge his sexual preference while still sharing a locker room with his teammates.

The professional sports locker room is "the last closet in America and one of the most important ones," Brian Ellner, of the gay-athlete support group Athlete Ally, told the Times.

And that's about to change. Those who would like to break down this last barrier have talked recently of a group of gay athletes – perhaps four or more and from more than one major pro sport – who are talking about coming out together as a way to deflect the spotlight from the "first" openly gay player of one of America's favorite manly sports.

Which brings us back to Robinson, whose number 42 has been retired by every Major League team in honor of the personal sacrifice and athletic prowess he gave to the sport. In 1947, he was the first and only black player at a time when Jim Crow laws and racial injustice were woven tightly into the fabric of America. He suffered physical attacks on the field, invective from his own teammates and shameful displays of hatred from fans who wanted to keep the game white. He responded with external stoicism and an internal fire that made him the most exciting player of his time, and a shining light for every person – atheletic or not – who has faced discrimination since.

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