Magic's tolerance teaches valuable lesson for all   

Updated: November 4, 2008, 3:41 PM ET

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I was reading a Q&A with a famous actor while waiting through yet another delay at O'Hare Airport. Sometimes I wonder why airlines even bother with departure times on the tickets. They should just say "Show up and we'll take off eventually."

Anyway, in one section of the article, the interviewer asked, "What's your favorite period in U.S. history?" The actor, who was nearing 60, replied "the '50s."

Needless to say, the actor was white.

I don't know too many black people who would identify a pre-Civil Rights decade as a high point in American history. But I can't begrudge the actor because it's all about perspective and until you take a stroll in another person's shoes -- either voluntarily or involuntarily -- it's hard to understand the full story. For him, the '50s were a blast. For someone like, say, a Japanese-American trying to piece a life back together after the government forced him or her into an internment camp during World War II, maybe not so much.

Where am I going with all of this?

The magic of Earvin Johnson, of course.

Magic Johnson

Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images

Having walked in the shoes of others, Magic Johnson can teach the importance of tolerance.

When he learned of his HIV status in 1991 he had a choice. He could've retired and dealt with the virus in obscurity or used his celebrity to educate. Obviously he chose the latter and the nation is better because of it. He put a face on a virus that was still faceless to a lot of people, particularly sports fans. Magic may have saved countless lives by challenging the thinking that HIV was a gay white man's disease.

Along the way Magic encountered the same sort of prejudice and discrimination that many gay men had to deal with, but not once do I recall Magic denouncing the gay community in order to "clear his name." I'm sure he was hurt and angry when fellow players protested against him returning to play in the NBA, but he took that pain and urged others to be compassionate and tolerant. Just last month a pair of shock jocks decided to poke a little fun at Magic's HIV status, but instead of demanding they be fired, Magic asked that they be educated.

A true leader and class act on the court.

An even more remarkable leader and classier act off the court.

And so this weekend I was excited -- but not surprised -- to learn that Magic Johnson had recorded a message urging Californians to vote no on Proposition 8, an initiative that looks to overturn legalized gay marriage in the nation's most populous state. Magic isn't gay, but over the past 17 years he has had the opportunity to understand the full story by walking in someone else's shoes. And just as he has done in business and philanthropy, he is using his knowledge, fame and influence to teach tolerance and educate the masses:

    "Prop 8 singles out one group of Californians to be treated differently -- including members of our family, our friends, and our co-workers.

    "That is not what California is about. So this Tuesday, vote no on Proposition 8. It is unfair and wrong. Thanks."

Magic declined to speak for this column, but the above gesture -- made by one of the greatest athletes of all time -- stretches far beyond the ballot. And whether gay marriage is overturned in California or not, one thing is clear: The day when a famous male athlete in a big team sport comes out is not very far away. With sports being the last bastion when it comes to openly dealing with homophobia, Magic's endorsement shows there is hope that maybe the country is finally ready to turn the page on this discussion. And just as we scratch our heads over why women had to fight for their right to vote, I believe one day the nation will wonder why we kicked gay people out of the military or prevented them from marrying. The country didn't collapse when women were let out of the kitchen and I doubt the small percentage of people who would actually marry someone of the same gender would suddenly cause the sky to fall.

Similarly, I don't think the NFL will decline in popularity if a quarterback brings his boyfriend to the Pro Bowl. In fact, I would like to think a player's coming out would be met with the same response I had to Clay Aiken's "I'm Gay" cover story in People magazine -- "Yeah, and …?"

That's probably unrealistic, but the point is I'm glad to see Magic actively taking a stand against homophobia in the same way whites courageously spoke out against racism during the '50s. Jackie Robinson went through hell to break the color barrier in baseball and today we don't think twice about seeing a person of color on the diamond. That's because of his strength and the strength and support of those not like him. Thanks to Magic, I believe one day soon the same will be said about a gay player. And of all of the great passes he made during his career, this would be Magic's greatest assist.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Page 2. He can be reached at l_granderson@yahoo.com.


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