SAN FRANCISCO – Slowly and deliberately, as more and more tortured souls summon the required courage, The Wall continues to crumble.
The Wall that separates feelings of shame from the freedom of acceptance in regards to sexuality lost another brick Thursday night when USF basketball coach Jennifer Azzi announced that she is married to her female partner, Blair Hardiek, an associate head coach for the Dons.
That she, Jennifer Azzi, the former Stanford star and one of the world’s most famous women’s basketball figures, is gay.
Now, it doesn’t matter what you or me or anybody else may have thought of Azzi prior to her going public at a Nob Hill dinner during which Warriors COO Rick Welts received the Anti-Defamation League’s Torch of Liberty award.
What matters is that Azzi has added her name to the ever-expanding list of those in the sports world willing to come out in public.
Azzi, who earlier this month led the Dons to their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1997, was on hand to introduce Welts, who in 2011 became the first executive in a major American sport to announce he is gay. Welts has since been very public about his sexuality in hopes of supporting angst-ridden adolescents as well as emboldening other adults.
Azzi’s announcement, though, was a surprise. Though she and Welts have a friendship – he asked her to introduce him – he made it clear that he thought her announcement was a special moment.
“I have never been prouder of you than I am tonight,” Welts, standing on the stage and facing Azzi, told an audience of about 600.
Azzi follows, among others, football players Michael Sam and Kwame Harris, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, boxer Orlando Cruz, basketball players Derrick Gordon and Jason Collins, swimmer Ian Thorpe and diver Greg Louganis.
They stand with the likes of journalists Anderson Cooper and Robin Roberts and Rachel Maddow and Don Lemon, who join the likes of entertainers Jane Lynch and Wanda Sykes and Ellen DeGeneres and Melissa Etheridge and Frank Ocean.
The list grows and grows, and the more it grows, well, the more it will continue to grow.
Azzi, 47, explained that she, like so many others before her, was weary of carrying the burden of secrecy.
“I don’t know why we do that,” she said, standing at the dais, “but we do.”
She wondered how her sexuality might affect her ability to recruit, and whether it would change public opinion about the young woman who as a player won an NCAA Championship (at Stanford), won a gold medal with Team USA and six years ago was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
Azzi fretted about all of it until one day, shortly after she and Hardiek married last summer, they had lunch with four members of the USF women’s team. Lunch was over and the conversation was stalling and, finally, Hardiek and Azzi stared at each other for a moment before Hardiek revealed their marriage.
They felt the freedom of acceptance – from themselves and their players – almost immediately.
Burden lifted, Azzi’s life became simpler. No more wondering what people thought. No more hiding feelings and opinions.
No more standing before The Wall and feeling it’s too sturdy to knock down.