Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Former Big League Umpire Pallone All Too Familiar With Jason Collins's Secret Life

As a straight male, I don't even pretend to know what someone like Jason Collins must have been going through, living a secret life as a gay man while an active player in the NBA.

This isn't like grief. It's not a few quiet moments at a funeral home, when someone goes up to a relative of the deceased and offers some trite comments of "Hey, I've been there," just because that person has also experienced the death of a loved one. Those feelings aren't totally congruent, either, by the way.

No one who is straight can purport to place themselves in Collins's Nikes.

Collins, the longtime (and still active) NBA center who came out as gay in this week's edition of Sports Illustrated, has mainly gotten support (at least publicly) for his self outing. Lord knows the missives he's received privately likely aren't all warm and fuzzy. Again, never been there. Maybe Hank Aaron could comment; the letters of vitriol sent to Hank as he pursued Babe Ruth's all-time home run record remain a black eye on our society.

It didn't take me long, once I heard of Collins's outing, for me to reach out to someone who I know has an inkling of Collins's feelings---both before and after the announcement.

I am proud to consider Dave Pallone a friend. Dave remains the only big league umpire to have been identified as gay. Only, Pallone didn't have the option of announcing his lifestyle on his own terms. He was outed---viciously, when his name was bantied about in a sex ring, of which he had no part, by the way.

Try that on for size.

Via email, I asked Pallone (left), who umpired in the National League from 1979 to 1988, about Collins and what it might mean for athletes in the future to out themselves. Not only is Pallone an openly gay man, he's also a public and motivational speaker whose message largely involves encouraging folks to be happy with who they are, among other positive thoughts.

"My coming out was different than Jason's," Pallone wrote me. "I was outed, so I didn't have the chance to do it on my own. But the relief I had was tremendous. It was like a 2000 pound weight on my shoulders finally falling off."

Pallone went one step further.

"For me (being outed) was nothing less than psychological rape."

I asked Pallone if he felt that Collins's coming out would lead to others doing so, not unlike a domino effect.

"There is no question that more athletes will now follow. It's like a kid and his friends at a lake. Everyone waits for someone to jump in and when he does and they see he's OK, they jump in with him."

I wondered if Pallone saw today's sociological landscape as being more fertile for society to accept gay professional athletes without a whole lot of angst. His reply was, thankfully, upbeat.

"Things are much different (now) than they were in the 1980s and 1990s," Pallone wrote. "Athletes are much more versed in social issues now and sexual orientation is always being talked about. 'Gay' is now NOT an evil word."

Pallone led a secret, double life throughout his umpiring career, which began in the late-1970s in the minor leagues. When I first met him, I remember he telling me of making up stories of sexual encounters he supposedly had with women, whenever his umpiring colleagues would ask him how his weekend was.

To use a baseball metaphor, it was a life constantly lived facing an 0-2 count.

So Pallone knows what Collins has been going through as an NBA player---constantly afraid of being "found out," unable to publicly be who he really was.

"(Collins's) life, as mine, had to be hard," Pallone wrote. "Think that at (age) 34 he now finally can be true to himself."

I asked Pallone if he had anything else to add. He did.

"This is just not an LGBT story, but it's an American story. This is a huge deal, and for me it's humbling to know I helped in some small way to make this day happen."

You can check out more of Dave Pallone and his life story, along with his positive messages about life, at DavePallone.com.

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