ESPN’s Keith Olbermann Knocks Gay Jason Collins STRAIGHT!
Keith pays tribute to the first openly gay player in one of the four major sports. And it’s not Jason Collins. On “Olbermann”, Keith talked about Glenn Burke, the LA Dodger who was the first openly gay athlete in major sports over 30 years before Jason Collins, and he hits a sweet spot. It’s personal, rational and ends with a shocking twist.
Glenn Burke, the Real First Openly Gay Athlete in Professional Sports
“If I can make friends honestly, it may be a step toward gays and straight people understanding each other. Maybe they’ll say, ‘He’s all right, there’s got to be a few more all right.’ Maybe it will begin to make it easier for other young gays to go into sports.” Glenn Burke
Those are the words of Major League Baseball’s first openly gay player. While the national media covers Jason Collins‘ first minutes on the court as an openly gay professional basketball player and the NFL network constantly breaks down rookie Michael Sam‘s combine stats, we forget about the ORIGINAL sports pioneer.
Glenn Burke played 225 games in the majors as a Dodger and as a member of the Athletics, with 523 at-bats, a .237 average, two home runs, 38 RBIs and 35 stolen bases. While those numbers remain far from stellar, he contributed as a spirited member of the locker room, well liked by his teammates.
Major League Baseball didn’t either know how to deal with his sexual orientation or chose not to. The media wouldn’t touch the story until years after he left the game. Glenn Burke was a trailblazer who arrived on the scene long before our culture knew how to embrace him. Glenn Burke, who played two seasons for the Dodgers in the late 1970s, didn’t hide from teammates that he was gay. He was a popular figure in the clubhouse.
Glenn Burke was just doing what came naturally. Dusty Baker’s home run blast to left field on
the last day of the regular season, Oct. 2, 1977, was history-making. It was his 30th, meaning the Dodgers became the first team to have four players hit 30 home runs in a season. As Baker rounded third to the roar of the Dodger Stadium crowd, Burke, a rookie outfielder, ran from the on-deck circle, jumped up and gave Baker an over-the-head hand-slap in celebration. And, the high-five was born.
Over the next few weeks, forgive me if I seem apathetic towards media reports about the progress of Mr. Sam or Mr. Collins in theirrespective sports. We live in 2014. A player’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have any bearing on how well they throw a ball or how much weight they can lift. While they may have overcome hardships in their quest to seek a career in professional sports while maintaining their authenticity as a person, it pales in comparison to Burke’s journey more than 35 years ago. Most of us have come a long way since then, although you wouldn’t know it by the actions of a few knuckle-draggers.
Last week, Jason Collins wasn’t even on an NBA team. In two weeks, he might not be on one. But for now, Collins — the first openly gay, active player in the United States’ four big sports leagues — is, by jersey sales, the NBA’s most popular player.
NBA Senior Vice President Vicky Picca said Tuesday that Collins’ No. 98 Brooklyn Nets uniform is the top-seller on NBA.com, besting the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. The interest is coming from the fans Collins has earned since announcing last year, when he was still unemployed, that he was gay.
“Jason Collins’ return to the league represents a historic moment, and fans continue to show their support by (buying) Jason’s jersey,” said Picca.
Not bad for a player who, just last week, inked a 10-day contract with the Nets. And the Stanford graduate hardly dominated in his lone game back on the court, going scoreless while compiling two rebounds and five personal fouls in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
In fact, Collins had never been a headline player. A journeyman with stops with New Jersey, Memphis, Minnesota, Atlanta, Boston and Washington, he’s known more for his defensive prowess and rebounding than his offensive output, having averaged 3.6 points per game over his 12-year career.
The warm reception he received during and after that game from his teammates, competitors like Kobe Bryant and league officials reflects more on Collins’ reputation as a player and person around the league, as well as his historic announcement. “I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after Collins’ signing last Sunday.
Whether Collins stays around remains to be seen. At age 35, he’s not bringing fresh legs to Brooklyn. And the team has no obligation to keep him on the roster. Still, whether or not he’s a go-to player, Collins has very much become a symbol for the gay rights movement since disclosing his sexuality in an April column in Sports Illustrated magazine.
“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation,” he wrote. “I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
There’s no escaping the symbolism in his jersey number: He chose 98 in honor of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student beaten to death in 1998.
The news that the Nets jersey was selling so well (despite the fact that Collins hasn’t even worn it yet, having at first donned a No. 46 for the Lakers game) struck a chord online.
Some on Twitter praised the development, like one who wrote, “He’s a piece of history, and this is really significant for a lot of people.”
Many others, though, were less enthusiastic — including some who used gay slurs and suggested Collins was profiting because he is gay. (In fact,
NBA players don’t get more or less money based on how many of their jerseys are sold.) Some questioned why Collins was being held out as an icon while, in their view, athletes who publicly profess their Christianity are criticized.
A few people questioned the jersey sales not because of Collins’ sexuality, but because of what they considered his sub-par play.
“Jason Collins’ jersey was actually a top-seller?” tweeted one. “Wow…I mean I’m glad he came out and all but #CmonMan.
I would write more about it, but wordsmith and sports personality Keith Olbermann eloquently sums it up better in 5 minutes than most professional journalists could with an entire novel.
There’s no escaping the symbolism in his jersey number if he chose number 3 in honor of GLENN BURKE, the REAL FIRST gay athlete in team sports. The next time you read or hear a story about a gay athlete, remember outfielder Glenn Burke.
If you have any interest in learning more about his journey, check out his story from the 1982 issue of Inside Sports chronicling Burke’s time as a professional baseball player. Heartbreaking, courageous, inspiring and tragic… all words to describe the tale of professional sports’ first openly gay athlete.
Watch “Olbermann” weeknights on ESPN2 at 11pm ET