Legendary sports figures weigh in at Civil Rights Summit

AUSTIN (KXAN/AP) — NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell said Wednesday that gay athletes’ current fight for equality and acceptance reminds him of some of the same struggles black athletes faced in the 1960s.

Russell, who won 11 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, said talk about whether gay athletes can be good teammates or if they might disrupt locker rooms are the same questions black athletes heard years ago, when colleges and professional leagues were struggling with the concept of integration.

“It seems to me, a lot of questions about gay athletes, were the same questions they used to ask about us,” Russell said during a panel discussion at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, which is hosting a summit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

Russell said he would have only one question about a gay teammate: Can he play?

Russell, 80, joined NFL Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, 78, on a panel about sports and race during the three-day Civil Rights Summit.

Brown and Russell were key figures, as athletes and black leaders, during the civil rights movement. Both men said they approached civil rights as a struggle for respect for human beings based on their character and merit, not the color of their skin.

“Freedom, equality and justice,” Brown said. “I pursued it at all costs because nothing else would substitute for that. No trophy, no form of popularity.”

Both can trace their willingness to speak out for African Americans back to their childhood where they were influenced by not only family, but in Brown’s case, his high school coach.

“Because I was helped as a young man, I knew that my life’s work would be to help others,” Brown said.

Their comments came just hours after UMass basketball player Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay player in Division I men’s basketball.

The former athletes also addressed the question of whether college athletes should be able to form unions and collectively bargain with their universities. Brown said he opposed unionizing college athletes, but also said he disliked the model of the NCAA.

“It’s not going to be a struggle between the NCAA and the union, that will just be (about) money … put the value back on education,” Brown said.

Russell, however, remembered fighting to form the NBA players union to get better contracts. That only worked when players threatened to sit out an all-star game and the playoffs, Russell said.

“All great fortunes are amassed with either cheap or slave labor,” Russell said. “The NCAA is the one group everybody is focusing on. They have this money machine. To keep it this way, the labor force has to be free or very low wages … All the agreements with the NBA now are based on collective bargaining.”

Of course, Russell and Brown aren’t the only athletes to stand up for civil rights. Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Jackie Robinson are just a few of the sports stars who took part in the civil rights movement.

In fact, baseball great Jackie Robinson wrote a letter to LBJ in 1967. Click here to see the letter.

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