Monday, July 14, 2008

Honoring Jackie Walker

Jackie Walker was a two-time All-American football star at the University of Tennessee in the early 70’s. He was also captain of the team. He was the first Black SEC All-American. Why, you may ask, with this outstanding record of accomplishment, has it taken 40 years for Jackie Walker to be inducted in the Greater Knoxville Hall of Fame?

Could it be because Jackie Walker was also a gay man? Though Hall of Fame officials deny that his sexual orientation had any part in their failure to honor this outstanding athlete since he became eligible for induction in 1976, it is difficult to imagine a heterosexual athlete with similar credentials being overlooked in the way Jackie Walker has been.

On Thursday night he will finally receive the long overdue recognition to which he is entitled. Unfortunately, Jackie Walker died of AIDS in 2002 and will not be there to accept the honor.

Read this wonderful column in the Knoxville News Sentinel about Jackie Walker and his induction into the Hall of Fame.

Though times are changing for gay and lesbian athletes and many are more are open with their teammates and coaches about their sexual orientation, Jackie Walker’s story reminds us of how deserving athletes can be discriminated against despite their accomplishments. Jackie Walker was a Black man who broke racial barriers in Tennessee sports. He was an outstanding athlete who broke records on the field. By all accounts he was also a man of great character, but because he was gay, his accomplishments were ignored. Being gay and dying of AIDS were enough to cancel out everything else about his exemplary life.

Being a Black football player in the 1970’s in the Tennessee must have been a challenge. Being a Black gay football player must have been a very lonely life indeed. Jackie Walker had to contend with both racism and heterosexism and this makes his accomplishments on and off the football field even more honorable.

I suppose his posthumous induction, 40 years after he became eligible, is a good sign; a sign that times are changing. I can’t help feel sadness though, thinking about the loneliness and outrage that Jackie Walkers might have felt. A Black gay football player who proved he was tougher and more talented than his heterosexual teammates watching them be honored over those many years while he was passed over again and again. Sometimes things just can’t be completely set right.

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