It made quite a bit of news this week when former Green Bay Packers safety Leroy Butler tweeted out the fact that he was bumped from a scheduled appearance at a Wisconsin church after he expressed social media support for NBA player Jason Collins. Collins, of course, came out in a Sports Illustrated cover story, becoming the first active player in a major team sport to make his homosexuality public. Some castigated the church (which Butler still refuses to name) for its closed stance, while others wondered why the church was not afforded the same right to free expression that Butler and Collins have been.
Most certainly, this debate will continue and catch fire as the subject opens up over time. On Thursday, Butler appeared on Anderson Cooper's CNN program to explain his point of view. Butler, who has been very active in his community through a number of churches since his retirement from the NFL in 2001, seemed a bit confused by the debacle -- he was set to speak on the subject of bullying, and he found the church's stance oddly ironic.
“I tell my story -- single-parent home, African-American, from the projects, going to Florida State and playing for the Green Bay Packers for 12 years, inventing the Lambeau Leap, which is a great story,” Butler said. “I wasn’t necessarily going into that because that wasn’t part of my story. But when I touch on bullying, you know, then that’s the problem they had because they didn’t want me to use Jason as a part of the bullying and I thought, well, that was just crazy to me.”
Butler said on the show that the church's pastor told him that if he apologized for the original tweet of support, took it down from his account, and "asked God for forgiveness," he would still be allowed to speak to the parishioners. His response:
“So basically you’re asking me to … some 16-year-old kid is somewhere in a closet with his father’s gun that he found and he’s thinking about putting it to his head because he’s been tormented in school every single day because they may have found out he is gay, or they suspected he’s gay. He doesn’t have a voice right now. You’re asking me to take all that back so he doesn’t have a voice. I won’t do that.
“That’s taking my dignity, my respect away. I want that young man to come out of the closet, put the gun down, and you’re a part of society. When did we get to this, starting to judge who gets to be a part of what society? It just bothers me. And I told the pastor to blame it on my mom, because my mom brought me up to love everybody.”
Butler, who was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 2007, also summed his own reaction to the possibility of a gay teammate.
“It comes down to this, Anderson: If you can run, jump, slam a basketball, throw a basketball, get an interception, if we win the Super Bowl ring, I don’t care who you bring to the ring ceremony. I just want to win the ring.”
Legendary Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, whose brother was gay and who told his players long ago that the repercussions for any negative reactions to gay teammates would be quick and severe, would most certainly agree.
From David Maraniss' amazing Lombardi biography, "When Pride Still Mattered":
Vince did know that Harold was gay, and here was an area where the coach showed an open mind, according to friends and family. He ignored Catholic teaching against homosexuality and instead considered gays another group deserving respect, like black and American Indians, and Italians. In later years, he would have players who were gay, and quietly root for them at training camp, hoping they would show they were good enough to make the team.
It would seem that the current discussion almost took place several decades ago.