Talk of trailblazers

I've been a little distracted the past few weeks, as the story that has bounced around my head for a while suddenly decided it wanted out, out, out. Now there's the matter of getting it seen, seen, seen, but that's another blog.

The biggest headline in recent sports news has been Jason Collins coming out. Collins becomes the first active player in an American major sport to be openly gay (though he is technically soon to be a free agent and not currently signed with a team). I was impressed with Collins' eloquence in the piece he wrote for Sports Illustrated explaining his decision and detailing his journey. I must admit, though, that when I originally read the piece sans picture on my iPhone, I wasn't totally clear on who he was until he started talking about his twin brother, and then I thought, 'Oh yeah, the Stanford guys.' Anyway, kudos to Collins for a decision that, as he said, he was glad to be making in 2013, not 2003, but that still could not have been easy, and to the chorus of support he's received.

As encouraging as that support was, it's still not like someone with superstar stature has truly tested America's image of its athletes/heroes. Maybe Collins' announcement, and the you-go-guy, even somewhat ho-hum, reaction he received, means that when someone with the name recognition and Q rating of a Kobe or a LeBron makes a similar declaration, the reaction will be as positive. I hope that's the case.

I also hope it's a coincidence that Chris Kluwe and Brandon Ayanbadejo, two of the most eloquently outspoken proponents of gay rights and marriage equality in the NFL, are currently out of work. In Kluwe's case, he saw his release by the Minnesota Vikings coming, as did anyone who noticed that the Vikings used a fifth-round draft pick on UCLA punter Jeff Locke. Ayanbadejo originally suggested that his release by the Baltimore Ravens was motivated, in part, by his vocal support of gay rights, but has backed away from that position.

I'm not suggesting any factors other than bottom-line business concerns were at work in the players' releases. I am saying that a football player coming out, especially a star, will generate more attention and, unfortunately, likely more vitriol than a role player in the NBA. The NFL is this country's most macho of sports with the most impassioned fans, some of whom do not always conduct themselves in the most gentlemanly - or gentlewomanly - fashion. It also generates the most money, be it ticket sales or merchandising, dominates television contract conversations and has spawned a multi-million dollar fantasy subculture. When one of the gay players that logic holds is already playing in the league decides to come out, we'll see a truer test of the progress that's been made.

Collins' announcement drew inevitable comparison to Jackie Robinson, in terms of pioneering players. Having finally seen "42" this past weekend, and having grown up with the utmost respect for Robinson, I see the lineage in such a comparison, but still approach it with caution. While I laud Collins for his courage and candor, no NBA president or general manager will have in a filing cabinet the folders full of death threats that the Dodgers' Branch Rickey did, directed at Robinson and his family. Collins, if he plays next season, may suffer the slings and arrows of an ignorant, too-lubricated fan in the third row, but he won't endure the waves of derision and soul-stomping hatred Robinson had to face - and ignore, for the good of the game. Collins will have a positive impact on young athletes - gay or straight - for years to come and will be the face of a more tolerant sports culture, but his number won't hang from the rafters of every arena and never be worn by any player again. Nor should it. He is to be admired, no doubt, but Jackie Robinson is rarefied air. 

That said, go see "42," if you haven't yet. Take your daughter. Take your son. It's Hollywoodified, to be sure, and heavy on heart-to-hearts I doubt ever took place, but it's well-portrayed, well-written and well done. It's a story that needs to be told and seen again, even if you know it and especially if you don't. It's a movie that made me want to call my Daddy first thing after leaving the theater. It's a movie that I was proud to take my stepdaughter to see. It's a movie that made me proud to be a Dodger fan, and it's a movie that made me love baseball more than I already do, if that's possible.

Baseball also experienced a terrifying moment this week, when Toronto pitcher J.A. Happ was struck in the head by a line drive. The ball made a sickening sound as it struck Happ, then rolled all the way to first base. Happ was taken off the field - Tropicana Field, where my husband and I have cheered on the Tampa Bay Rays - on a stretcher as teammates and fans watched in shock, but was released from the hospital just a day later. He sustained a small skull fracture and needed stitches on his ear, but did not suffer a concussion or any damage to his brain or spine.

That's a small miracle, but it should also serve as an impetus to Major League Baseball to stop relying on the miraculous to prevent a devastating tragedy. MLB is looking into devices, including Kevlar-lined caps, to improve pitcher safety, but says tests have so far failed to prove anything reliable and safer. Keep testing, then, and do it quickly, with a sense of urgency. The next Happ may not be so lucky.

What else? The NFL Draft has come and gone - much to Geno Smith's relief - playoff hoops and hockey are in full swing and Tiger Woods is in contention at The Players Championship. In less happy news, my Dodgers are mired in a seven-game losing streak and losing players like flies in a heat wave to a mounting injury list. Oh, well, maybe if everyone is hurt in May, everyone will be healthy in August. Assuming we're not 15 games back by then.

I won't stay away so long in the future. Don't know if you missed me, but I missed you.