On: Jason Collins

It is rare, but there are things in life that supersede even the oldest and most passionate of college rivalries.

Jason Collins’ coming out announcement is one of them – and Stanford degree be damned, he deserves the respect and applause of every Golden Bear for it, new and old. He certainly has mine.

I’ve written in the past about gay athletes in sports, but in writing those columns, I always expected that the thing we were all waiting for – an actually open, active player – was still another few years away, that the atmosphere was surely changing, but not yet where it needed to be.

Perhaps I misjudged the climate. After all, the outpouring of support for Collins has been massive, with teammates, celebrities, and stars all publically backing him – Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, Bill Clinton and countless others have helped turn this moment into something positive.

Of course, there is still so much work left to be done, too – the comments on SI’s article show that much, the trending tweets speculating about Chris Bosh show that much, and Mike Wallace’s comments show that much.  All that is, to some degree, expected. Intolerance rarely dies quickly, often needing the life strangled out of it before it gives way to anything else. Even in acknowledging that, this announcement definitely couldn’t have occurred 10, or even 5 years ago – so in that sense, we’ve already made tremendous progress, both as a society and in the sports universe as a whole.

I profess to having no knowledge of whether or not he will play next season – or even if he’ll get signed. Perhaps “active player” is a loosely used term here, seeing as Collins currently has no team, and may never have another. Whether or not he ends up seeing an NBA court again, I don’t particularly care. It does not take away from the enormity of this moment.

For one, it’s definite proof that gay athletes are just as tough as straight ones. I never got to see Jason Collins play much, but everything I’ve heard points to him making a career out of being an enforcer, one of those guys whose contributions is in defending the paint, deterring drivers, and setting brick walls for screens. That seems irrelevant at first, until you realize that it stands in direct defiance of what people believe gay athletes to be. No one who goes head to head every night with behemoths like Dwight Howard should be called soft, and I hope anyone who is dumb enough to think that “softness” stems from sexual orientation is also dumb enough to say it to the face of the 7’0″, 255 pound Collins. The same problem is at the heart of every stereotype – which is why I am strongly against them as a whole; stereotypes act to flatten and reduce someone’s character into a set of predetermined qualities, making it impossible for them to be judged on the basis of their character.

Two, Collins’ announcement is big because it makes him into a role model for something besides LGBTs in sports – being a person of color, he also becomes a force for change and dialogue in the black community, too, hopefully having made it easier for other closeted athletes to come out themselves. At the very least, he’s already taken care of the hardest part. No movements begin without leaders, and Collins has offered himself up as the first in the one for equality in sports.

Time will tell who follows. No one is going to be able to take these two things from him, whether or not he ever plays again. The timing of this is also different than one from someone who comes out after retirement, like John Amaechi – and here’s why. Jason Collins can still play – might still play, even. He is at the end of his career, sure, but he may still have to face the media and fans after this, unable to take advantage of the easy obscurity that retirement offers. What he has done takes a different kind of bravery – it is far more difficult than coming out once one’s career is over and there are no more locker rooms to be a part of.

At the same time, this makes Jason Collins different from Jackie Robinson, too, since the stigma of his sexuality did not follow him from the beginning of his career, the way race did for Robinson.

Perhaps that is a good thing – it allows us to more properly see Jason Collins as, well, Jason Collins, separate of anyone else.

I want to close this collection of thoughts with a tweet I saw on my timeline, courtesy of my good friend Isaac.

We aren’t talking about Jason Collins, the gay NBA player, we’re talking about Jason Collins, the human being who happens to be in the NBA.

— Isaac Williams (@berserkinberk) April 29, 2013

I want to believe what he does – that this announcement is not a big deal, and that he is, in fact, “just” a human being who happens to play basketball. There will come a day when that is true, but it isn’t now. Not yet. Not when there are so few LGBT athletes, not when we still have to attach labels like “first gay active player” to people like Collins.

But soon…

Two other things, separate from my semi-coherent thoughts above:
By the way, big shout out to Brittney Griner, too. She didn’t get nearly enough press for her announcement a few weeks back, but I also feel that that’s because the world perceives gay men different than lesbian women. All of the above applies to her, too – she is equally worthy of applause, and equally someone worth admiring. Good for you, Brittney Griner. You go, Brittney Griner.

Also, ESPN, you should be fucking ashamed of yourself. You’ve changed it now, but your coverage of Tebow overshadowed the magnitude of this all morning…and more and more, it seems like you’re in the sports-entertainment business, not the sports one. There is a difference.

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