By Allen Hutson
Michael Sam and Jason Collins have made headlines over the past month for breaking barriers in two American sports. Sam, a 24-year-old NFL prospect from the University of Missouri, will be the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL, and Collins is now the first openly gay player to compete in one of the big three American sports.
In spite of the fact that sports figures are frequently at the forefront of social change in America, athletes and sports journalists are rarely, if ever, comfortable with social commentary. Most would prefer to politely dismiss both stories. “Yes” to historic, “no” to distraction, and “please” to moving on.
Sam and Collins are breaking barriers in their respective sports, but the players simply reflect the broader social acceptance of homosexuality in American life. Their achievement is remarkable in part because the big three professional sports reflect the most macho elements of mainstream American culture, showing just how far public opinion has shifted.
That cultural change is sometimes difficult to define, but the markers are clear. In my free time between the Super Bowl and opening day, I picked up William Shirer’s, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The book is an epic history of the Nazi Germany, and it is also frequently noted as the most comprehensive history of Hitler’s regime. The author William Shirer was an American journalist who lived in Germany during the ascent of the Nazi party. When he died in 1993, the NY Times published a glowing obituary briefly documenting his career.
His star-studded credentials make his perspective on homosexuality even more shocking. Regarding Hitler’s inner circle, Shirer wrote:
“Many of its [the S.A.] top leaders, beginning with its chief, Rohm, were notorious homosexual perverts. Lieutenant Edmund Heines, who led the Munich S.A., was not only a homosexual but a convicted murderer. These two and dozens of others quarreled and feuded as only men of unnatural sexual inclinations, with their peculiar jealousies, can.”
Shirer’s hateful and intolerant views are embedded throughout his remarkable work, which documents the crimes of the most horrific period in the 20th Century, and today it is difficult not to pass judgment. The blindness is bizarre, but it is merely a symptom of the prevailing views of the time.
In A Fundamental Freedom David Lampo, a fellow contributor to this blog, explains just how intolerant Americans were in the 1950s and 1960s. David’s work explicitly describes the attitudes that Shirer’s work exhibits. There have been many markers of how far we have come since The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was published in 1960. The two athletes breaking boundaries in 2014 aren’t the first signs of progress since 1960, and they won’t be the last.