Uncle Loyal, as we dubbed him in the college journalism department, was one of our favorite professors. It wasn’t because we ever learned anything from him about journalism. It was because he regaled us with “sea stories” about his days as an NBC correspondent.
There was the time when he claimed to have sneaked Vice President Richard Nixon into East Berlin to visit a nightclub, and got him out a few minutes before the state security police arrived. He used to play touch football with the Kennedy brothers. He always knew Teddy was the weak link.
Uncle Loyal was like the Peter Falk character in The In-Laws, only loopier. (The persistent campus rumor was that he recruited for the CIA.) His stories had such high concentrations of horse pookey that no one believed a word. Then people learned that some of these Bunyanesque episodes really happened.
So I now believe the professor’s story about covering the civil war in the Dominican Republic. He and a cameraman were running alongside a Dominican army colonel when they came under rebel artillery fire. A shell took the officer’s head clean off—but his body kept running for another 10 yards before keeling over.
Something made me think of that story when I saw Brokeback Mountain and the previews for Glory Road. I thought of the Southern culture warriors in the ’60s who labored to keep universities and sports teams free of black people, and those today who want to stop homosexuals from marrying and parenting. They have something in common with the headless Dominican officer. They are done but don’t know it.
Texas Western’s 1966 championship victory over Kentucky, the story that Glory Road celebrates, was a milestone. For the first time, a title-winning team featured five black starters. The contrast with Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky team, which had never taken the court with even one black player, could not have been starker. Not so long after the Wildcats’ 72-65 loss, Rupp and other Southern holdouts began recruiting black players in earnest. In the end, they preferred the purity of winning to the purity of whiteness.
But if that 1966 game was a catalyst, the eventual demise of segregated basketball was already assured. A decade earlier, San Francisco had won it all with two black stars, Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. In 1963, the Ramblers of Loyola University in Chicago took the NCAA championship with four black starters. Defying the governor’s orders, the team from Mississippi State had taken off in the dead of night to keep an appointed game with Loyola.
By the spring of 1966, Rupp and his kind were the last of the Lost Causers. Within another decade, even Alabama, where George Wallace had vowed to uphold segregation forever, was starting an all-African American lineup under C.M. Newton, and few thought it especially remarkable.
But what if a college team started five gay men?
Of course, for all we know, it has already happened. (Please, please, please, no Duke jokes here.) If it does happen, will we even recognize it as a landmark? Or will it just seem as natural as having black ballplayers on the court? (If you want to dream up something truly shocking, imagine if Tubby Smith, in tribute to Glory Road and in the spirit of the “throwback uniforms” all teams will wear at the SEC Tournament, puts five white boys on the floor for UK.)
When Nolan Richardson, who played for Don Haskins at Texas Western, became the first black coach to win a national title, it was a milestone that almost seemed passé as we passed it. Is that how it will feel when openly gay men and women play in our games?
Part of the heartbreak of Brokeback Mountain is that it recalls a time that was not so long ago, yet, by our current lights, seems as savagely alien as the Jim Crow South, where a boy could be beaten beyond human recognition for whistling near a white woman. We know that, had the star-crossed protagonists been born a generation later, they need not have lived double lives in fear. They’d have had options that did not exist in 1963. They could have moved to a large city and lived openly ever after.
For homosexuals, places like Riverton, Wyo., and Childress, Texas, haven’t changed that much. Being gay there can be hazardous. But that doesn’t mean the culture war hasn’t been decided, just as Rupp’s lily-white lineup didn’t mean that racial integration was a stoppable tide.
The headless colonels of the Southern Baptist Convention and the 700 Club don’t yet realize that the integration of homosexuals into our national life, in every sense of what that means, is also as sure as the tide. But they will.
The locker room is one of the last frontiers. While a few ex-athletes have outed themselves, no gay men have revealed their identities while active members of a professional team. Even in women’s sports, where lesbians are a conspicuous part of the fan base, homosexuality among the athletes is discussed in whispers. Only after her career did Martina Navratilova leave the closet.
Last year, one high school football star took the brave step of revealing to his teammates he was gay. They rallied around him. Gay players have been part of teams in every sport forever. Some are bench-sitters. Some are stars. The day is coming when some top athlete at the peak of his game will tell everyone whom he really is, and others will follow, and it will at once seem like a shock and no big deal. Like Texas Western’s win, it will jar people into recognizing what they should have already known: the revolution is over.