Understanding Emile Griffith

Emile Griffith Dies At 75 (3:00)

ESPN boxing analyst Nigel Collins discusses the legacy of former world champion boxer Emile Griffith. (3:00)

It has been a long time since a week has gone by in which I haven't been called some kind of slur over the Internet.

Sometimes it's the N-word, sometimes it's the F-word, and, if the person is feeling really creative, sometimes it's a combination of the two. For the most part, I've learned to ignore these cowards who try to dehumanize me with hateful words.

But I am human, so every now and then I do get ticked off.

This is perhaps why when I first heard the story about Emile Griffith beating Benny "The Kid" Paret so bad that he died 10 days later, I immediately thought of a paraphrase of a popular comedian's punch line: I'm not saying that it's right, but I understand.

I know what it's like to have people constantly try to belittle me, intimidate me, back me into a corner using society's laissez faire attitude toward using gay slurs like a torch, the way the misguided townspeople chased Frankenstein's monster.

Too often the conversation surrounding homophobia and sports is sprinkled with victimhood, even pity. Yes, the athletes who have come out talk about the fear. But don't mistake that for meaning fear is the only emotion that is coursing through their veins. Believe me, there is also a lot of anger. The kind of anger that watches episodes of "The Wire," sees Omar, the iconic homo-thug in the series, kill someone ... and smiles.

I'm not advocating violence.

I'm trying to add perspective to what happened in the 12th round one Saturday night in Madison Square Garden back in 1962.

Griffith didn't continuously punch Paret's limp body simply because the Cuban boxer called him a gay slur in Spanish. That was part of the backdrop but not its entirety. Griffith unleashed his fury because he was living in a time in which electroshock therapy was used to change people like him; in which police would harass, even jail people like him; in which -- like a smog of hate they couldn't escape breathing -- the world was denigrating people like him every day of their lives.

Under the kind of constant emotional duress, you eventually run out of cheeks to turn to.

"I got tired of people calling me [a gay slur]," he told the New York Times in 2005.

That was also the first time he spoke openly about being bisexual. Until then, he struggled to accept that part of himself, even as the world around him became more accepting.

It would be a grave mistake to summarize what happened that Saturday night to Paret called Griffith a name. You have to understand this was New York in 1962. Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes -- three writers intertwined in the ongoing influence of the Harlem Renaissance -- were just up the street, partying with Nina Simone, making their art an essential part of the civil rights movement narrative. Some doing so while living a relatively openly gay life. Something Griffith, who quietly visited gay nightclubs, felt he could not do as a professional athlete.

We know about the anxiety and suicidal thoughts some closeted athletes go through while trying to keep their sexual orientation a secret. Griffith illuminates the anger that is sometimes woven into the fabric of oppression. An anger that is contained by the mask that many closeted people -- athletes and non-athletes alike -- wear in order to hide. Then one day -- while competing in a sport that encourages anger, thrives on rage, demands savagery -- the mask falls off.

"He called me a name. ... So I did what I had to do," he told the Times.

Griffith didn't have to do it. And years later he said he didn't mean to do it.

I'm not saying that it was right ... but I understand.