Posted: Tue April 30, 2013 12:00PM; Updated: Tue April 30, 2013 1:02PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>VIEWPOINT

A reluctant trailblazer, Navratilova laid groundwork for Collins

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Martina Navratilova laid groundwork for Jason Collins
In 1981, Martina Navratilova defied the WTA's wishes and announced her homosexuality to the world.
Manny Millan/SI

A few weeks ago -- as it became apparent that the notion of an active male athlete in a U.S. team sport removing himself from the closet was a question not of "if" but of "when" -- I called Martina Navratilova at her home in Miami. Might she have interest in writing a column about what this cultural shift represented? Might she want to share some thoughts and impressions? She did. Of course, she did.

But her essay -- heartfelt and thoughtful and powerful as it was -- didn't traffic much in the first person. If she had any impulses to draw comparisons between herself and gay athletes today, she resisted them. There was no recollection of her decision to state flatly that, yes, she was a lesbian. Nor did she rehash what she encountered in the ensuing years. There was scant mention of the untold millions in endorsements she lost as a consequence and no reference to the scarcity of other athletes -- including many she knew to be gay -- to join her over the next 34 years. No, she wrote instead in general terms.

I pressed her on this. She wasn't budging. Her situation was different from a gay NFL or NBA player, she insisted. She explained that she was competing in an individual sport, so she needed only to win. She didn't need to worry about being sabotaged by a homophobic coach. She didn't have to concern herself with team chemistry or locker-room dynamics. There was no social media or Internet to catalyze controversy, she pointed out.

And, yes, she was a woman athlete. We saw a vivid representation of this double standard just this month: Brittney Griner comes out and we scarcely shrug. Jason Collins comes out and ka-boom!

All true. But what about everything that could have militated against Navratilova coming out? There was no majority of Americans -- including the sitting president -- favoring marriage equality. No athletes taping those "It Gets Better" PSA's. No sitcoms with openly gay characters. No, it was a time when my gym teacher instructed us to play "smear the queer" games, the good guys in movies mocked the lisping characters and it was acceptable to tell AIDS jokes.

Back and forth we went. "It's not about me," she said.

Again, I'd dispute that. And, much more important, so would Collins. As Collins and I spoke last Wednesday, hardly any time elapsed before he noted athletes -- gay and straight -- before him who helped clear his path. "The words thank you," he says, "aren't enough."

No one figures more prominently here than Navratilova. (Collins told Good Morning America on Tuesday that Navratilova is "my role model.)" While she is generally credited with being "the first athlete to come out while still competing," that hardly does justice to her situation. In 1981, she defied the WTA's wishes and announced her sexuality to the world. She was 24 at the time. She was also nine days away from a hearing to become a U.S. citizen. (As a teenager, she had come to America seeking political asylum from what was then Communist Czechoslovakia; she'd be damned if she wasn't going to take advantage of her new freedoms.)

And here's what else is often lost in the retelling: When Navratilova came out, she was squarely in the meaty years of her career, a superstar by any definition. And she had no idea what kind of price her declaration would exact on her career. This was unprecedented.

The fallout was considerable, manifesting itself in both commission and omission. There were snide remarks and masked references to her physique. Her breakups and palimony suits were reported with a breathless, giddy sensationalism that never attended, say, the divorce accounts of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. There were sponsors and tastemakers who took their marketing budgets elsewhere. Clearly her sexuality informed her casting as the harsh and muscular foil to the softness and fierce heterosexuality of Chris Evert.

But Navratilova's capacity for hitting a ball over a net? Her "coming out" didn't hinder that. Not in the least. In 1982, the first full season after her announcement, her match record was a preposterous 90-3, as she became the first female athlete to earn more than $1 million in prize money in a single year. She was even better in 1983, going 86-1. There's your precedent.

She'd later say that, if anything, the security she gained in coming out catalyzed her tennis career. She started to eat right and train right and "feel free." And as she established herself as a Mt. Olympus athlete, she was at ease discussing her sexuality.

Male sportswriter: "Martina, are you still a lesbian?"

Navratilova: "Are you still the alternative?"

Before "all in" fell into such trendy currency, Navratilova had been a reliable voice for the dispossessed.

She filed a lawsuit against Amendment 2, a 1992 ballot proposition in Colorado designed to deny gays and lesbians legal protection from discrimination. In 2000, she was the recipient of the National Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign, the U.S.' largest gay and lesbian activist/lobbying group. Last year, when Margaret Court, her contemporary, spouted nonsense about curing those who had chosen the "abomination" of homosexuality, Navratilova came back with this.

As she once put it: "I've always had this outrage against being told how to live, what to say, how to act, what to do, when to do it."

In one declaration, Jason Collins has instantly become something much more than an NBA veteran. But we'd do well to note that it didn't happen in a vacuum. Navratilova would be perfectly content going unrecognized on this historic occasion. But doing so would represent an act of indefensible exclusion.

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