Fifteen years before Jason Collins took his ground breaking steps out of the closet and into American sports history, a 37-year-old man named Justin Fashanu walked into a London storage unit and took his own life.
Fashanu, an English professional soccer player, was the Collins of his time, having revealed his homosexuality midway through a career that flirted with stardom and ended in tragedy.
But Fashanu's time wasn't ready for him. Neither England, nor the 1990s, nor soccer, were prepared to embrace an openly gay athlete, setting into motion a spiral of self-destruction that ended in a premature death.
While Collins has rightly been lauded for his bravery after his revelation earlier this week, Fashanu's sexuality made him a target in a sport that still does a shockingly poor job at tolerance. His own coaches spat homophobic epithets in his direction. His teammates made crude and insulting attempts at humor. Opposition fans concocted vile songs and chants. Even his own brother spoke out against him.
The authorities did nothing.
"It gives me goosebumps to think of Jason Collins' decision and the way it has been received so positively," Justin's niece, Amal Fashanu, told Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday. Amal, who was only 8 years old when her uncle died, made an award-winning documentary about him for the BBC last year.
"Justin didn't have any of that," she continued. "None of the warmth, none of the recognition that what he did took so much courage. Instead, he was picked on because of it, made to feel inferior, different, wrong. He was a lost soul, but even then his precedent secretly gave a lot of people hope. I get messages about what an inspiration he was from all around the world, all the time."
[Related: Watch: Road ahead for Jason Collins]
Fashanu came out in 1990, nine years after he became the first black English soccer player to be worth a transfer fee of 1 million pounds ($1.56 million) when he moved from Norwich City to powerhouse Nottingham Forest. (It was Fashanu who was responsible for one of the great goals of the 1980s.) Forest had been European champions just a year earlier, thanks largely to its legendary manager Brian Clough.
Yet while Clough was one of the most tactically enlightened men ever to work in soccer, his attitudes were as old school as they come. When he heard rumors of Fashanu hanging out in Nottingham's gay bars and lounges, he cornered him at training, demanding to know what he was doing in those "bloody [expletive] clubs."
Soccer players learn to develop the ability to block out the taunts of the fans, even the most sickening and bigoted vitriol. But what stung Fashanu the most were the comments of his brother John, himself a leading pro who would twice play for the England national team. John Fashanu described Justin as an "outcast" after his revelations about his sexuality, bemoaning the fact that he (John) would be the focus of extra attention from jeering fans as a result of Justin coming out.
By the mid-1990s Justin Fashanu's best days were long behind him as years of heavy partying took its toll. He moved briefly to the United States, finding work as both a player and a coach. However, after accusations he had sexually assaulted a 17-year-old in Maryland – where homosexual acts were then illegal – he fled back to England. Within weeks he was dead, hanging himself in a storage unit after a visit to a gay sauna.
Amal Fashanu fondly remembers her uncle and admits the process of collecting material for her documentary was both heartbreaking and joyous.
"It was like getting to know someone all over again," she said. "The road to clearer thinking in sport was never going to be an easy one and there is still a long way to go. It needed someone like Justin to come along who had no fear of repercussions and wasn't prepared to live his life as lie.
"I don't think he regretted anything he did – he was that kind of spirit – so I don't have regrets for him. But what I do wish was that it could have been different, that he could have exercised his human right and been met with respect and compassion and understanding, instead of the hateful treatment he got."
Thursday will mark exactly 15 years since Fashanu committed suicide. And while progress regarding enlightenment towards gay athletes is both welcome and gaining serious momentum, it came far too late for Justin Fashanu.
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