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Still, the Jackie linkage is inevitable—if only because media, like generals, tend to view the next war through the lens of the last. Not to mention that 42, the new film about Robinson's 1947 shattering of the color barrier, has been one of the nation's highest-grossing releases since it opened on April 12. Ayanbadejo, who since 2009 has been one of the NFL's loudest voices for marriage equality and the need to welcome a gay athlete, saw 42 right after it opened. He couldn't help but place his role in the fight within its context.
"I'm more like a Branch Rickey, a Pee Wee Reese: I'm an ally," Ayanbadejo said in mid-April. "I'm not going to be the person in the fire. But I am going to be the person who makes it a safer place."
But aside from the shattering of one of American sports' and society's thickest barriers—one that gay players such as NFL running back Dave Kopay in the 1960s and '70s, and MLB outfielders Glenn Burke in the 1970s and Billy Bean in the '80s and '90s didn't dare approach—Collins's journey figures to be very different.
The primary reason? Monday's announcement is more the exclamation point on a series of gay rights victories than the starting point. Barack Obama had long been criticized for his slow "evolving" on the matter, but it has been nearly a year since he announced his support for marriage equality and four months since he became the first President to mention gay rights in an inaugural address. When Robinson arrived at Dodgers spring training in 1947, there was nothing like Modern Family or Ellen—warm, lighthearted fare that made it easy for mainstreamers to envision everyday life alongside "those people." Desegregation of the U.S. military was still more than a year away. Black Americans' access to housing, jobs and the ballot box would remain unsettled for the next two decades.
The other distinction arises from the element of choice: Collins could decide whether and when to make his minority status known. The fights for racial and sexual equality in the public square may use similar tactics, and certainly lie on the same historic time line of expanding human rights. But as some civil rights advocates point out, Jackie Robinson had no decision to make. He was regarded as black every time a white person laid eyes on him and second-class by a large number. And once he arrived in the major leagues, an entire population of talented and impatient black players surged forward too.
ARE THERE gay players banging on the door of professional sports now? No. They're already in. Ayanbadejo is in contact with a number of gay NFL players, and his effort to have a handful come out together, within the next six months, is designed to spread the burden that Collins, for the moment, has taken on alone. In that sense, Ayanbadejo believes, a groundbreaker like Collins could well face some of what Jackie faced.
"Are people going to kick you out of hotels? Are you going to have to not take a shower? No," Ayanbadejo, 36, said in the weeks before Collins's announcement. "You're going to have to hold back your temper when people say dumb stuff to you. In public you're going to be welcome everywhere, but you might get some slurs thrown at you.
"It's going to be tough. But it's not even close to what Jackie Robinson did, because there are already gay people in the NFL. There are already gay people in the NBA, in baseball. It's not like they haven't been here. They're here. It's just that other people aren't ready to accept it yet."
Some people, surely. But at the same time there has been a sea change in the attitude of straight Americans toward homosexuality, and few active players have pushed tolerance more than Ayanbadejo. Since 2009, when he wrote a four-paragraph blog post defending same-sex marriage, he has been the NFL's go-to resource on the matter—whether it be campaigning last November in the successful movement to legalize gay marriage in Maryland or signing, with Kluwe, an amicus brief to the Supreme Court supporting the overturn of California's Proposition 8. Though he was cut by Baltimore last month and has speculated that the league is happy to see his outspokenness quelled, Ayanbadjeo has no intention of going quiet.
"If I'm not going to do it, who is?" he said. "I don't see Ed Reed or Joe Flacco jumping up to talk about this issue. Though you'd be surprised; a lot of [players] support us. But if not me, who else? I welcome it. I think it was my destiny to be an ally on this issue."