Billie Jean King: Jason Collins represents "civil rights issue of the 21st century"

(CBS News) The overwhelming outpouring of support for Jason Collins - the NBA player who last week became the first athlete in the four dominant professional sports to announce that he's gay - "has been a long time coming," former tennis great Martina Navratilova said Sunday on "Face the Nation."

Navratilova said coming out in 1981 cost her "a lot of money and endorsements," and drummed up "a lot of sensationalism that wasn't pretty." Bob Schieffer's observation that Collins's announcement didn't trigger the commotion he expected was "not really" surprising, she said.

"The times have changed," Navratilova said. "I think when President Obama came out in favor of gay rights, of gay marriage, that really changed the tide. But we have to remember... this has been a long time coming. We still don't have equal rights.

"I have been getting on Twitter, 'oh, why does this matter? I don't care,' which is kind of code for, 'I really don't want to know,'" she said. "But it does matter, because in 29 states in this country you can still get fired for not just being gay but if your employer thinks that you're gay, you can still get fired. We don't have equal rights."

Appearing in the same segment, legendary tennis star Billie Jean King said she, too, lost her endorsement deals "in 24 hours" after coming out in 1981. She also recalled baseball pro Glenn Burke in the 1970s, to whom the Dodgers offered "$75,000, to get married to a woman to cover up his homosexuality.

"...He was the Jackie Robinson of our rights, of the gay issues," King continued. "And no one listened to him. And he died very, very young - a broken person."

Lauding the Supreme Court for hearing arguments for and against the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and California's Proposition 8, which makes gay marriage illegal, King said "the big difference now, compared to those days, is that people are ready to hear it, to listen."

"I'm thrilled that Jason had the courage to do this, Bob, but it's because gay rights right now are the civil rights issue of the 21st century," she said. "And finally, I think people are ready to hear him."

Esera Tuaolo, a former NFL player and author of, "My Life in The Trenches: My Life As A Gay Man in The NFL," said that while gay athletes "have taken some baby steps forward," there's still "a lot of work to do."

"I didn't feel safe, back then, a decade ago - it was definitely a different time where playing in such a masculine environment, going to work every single day I didn't feel safe being true to myself," he said. "When you're in the closet and you're living with this crippling secret, you're living with depression, you're living with suicidal tendencies, you're living with blackouts, you're living with stress.

"...It was very difficult to play to the best of my ability, to play to the fullest of my potential, when you're carrying all of that with you," Tuaolo continued.

NFL linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, a mouthpiece for the gay-rights movement, said the religious community and the sports community remain "two of the last closets in America" where gay people struggle to be accepted. But even if the locker rooms aren't quite ready to change that, he added, "it's our job to do what's right, and to do what's best."

"We're fighting for so many things," Ayanbadejo said. "We want athletes to be themselves and to realize their full potential. But also it trickles down to kids and affects kids with their self-esteem. It will cut down suicide rates in kids if NFL players support the LGBT movement. So, and then also legislatively, we don't have - the LGBT community does not have the rights of just heterosexual people. And that's discrimination in itself.

"So there's so many moving parts to this movement," he continued. "And so many ways we can make a difference in acceptance, in sports alone, that can change the whole demographic and can change things in our whole country and make us so much more of a positive nation just by supporting, just by NFL players or NBA players, NHL, MLB players coming out. So that's why it's so heroic, what Jason Collins did."

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