Well, how about that? In the race to claim the title as the first of the United States’ “big four” sports to announce possession of the first openly gay athlete, the NBA has scored a touchdown on the NFL. Or is that a field goal?
Okay, maybe I’m being a just a little facetious, but based on the way the media has been anticipating this day – between the “coming out” of NFL prospect and college football All-American Michael Sam and Jason Collins’ previous announcement back in April of 2013 – they’ve turned something inevitable into something of a spectacle.
Don’t get me wrong, to borrow the words of Vice President Joe Biden, “this is a big f—ing deal!”
The sad thing is, it really shouldn’t be.
I’m not at all saying that it’s not a notable thing, both historically and societally, that Collins has finally played his first game since coming out publically, taking the floor as a Brooklyn Net. The moment definitely should not be lost on anyone.
Like any “first,” particularly one with any kind of oppression attached to it — be it race- or gender-based, or pertaining to sexual orientation — it is a significant feat when a previously unbroken barrier of this nature is shattered.
And, we should also, whether we support his right to exist as a human being or we ignorantly dismiss him as something less-than (hey, guess which side I’m on!), we should all at least give him our honest admiration for the courage it must have taken to come out.
We should also admire Brittney Grenier, the former Baylor University star who came out before ever suiting up for her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, just after college; former NBA center John Amachi, who came out after his retirement from the Orlando Magic; and others like him in other sports who came out after they stepped away from the glare of the spotlight. But, it is even riskier to do what Collins did, announcing himself late in a career that he desired to continue, and Sam coming out before ever pocketing a single NFL dollar in what is the ultimate “don’t ask, don’t tell” super-macho business of male professional sports.
I still contend, however, that while the “outings” ARE a big deal for all of the reasons listed above and more, they really shouldn’t have caused those tents to be pitched for the circus that some have made the situation out to be (especially all of that “Football Player Sam Dances Shirtless At A Gay Bar” coverage. Thanks for rolling out the clowns on everyone Daily Mail, TMZ, Huffington Post and the gaggle of other lesser lights. Now THAT is some dignified reporting!).
Look, if an overly-opinionated, but never duplicated Alpha-Male like Charles Barkley says it’s no big deal, who are we to argue?
[From Huffington Post, back on May 18th, 2011 – two years before Collins announcement]
“First of all, every player has played with gay guys,” Barkley said. “It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say: ‘Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.’ First of all, quit telling me what I think. I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play.”
“Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin’ idiot,” he said. “I would even say the same thing in college. Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person.”
And, almost prophetically, some of the bigger names around the League – including Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Deron Williams, Magic Johnson and others in and out of the NBA – have not only recognized Collins for what he does, but they’ve also supported him for who he is. Even the fans of the game have become part of the conversation by making Collins’ #98 jersey an instant top-seller (since his run with the Celtics and Wizards, Collins has worn the number as a tribute to Matthew Shepard, the young college student whose torture and murder in 1998 was one of the more notoriously brutal anti-gay hate crimes in recent times).
Amazingly (alarmingly?), Barkley is 100% right here: the law of averages says that just about every player has been on a team somewhere in their lifetimes with at least one gay teammate. Now, I don’t know about you, but in my time as a sports fan, I really can’t recall reading or hearing about a single solitary instance in which any of the “big four” reported an incident caused by someone’s sexual orientation.
Consider this: At the age of 35, Collins is a 10-year veteran who has played in a total of 714 games. By his own admission, he’s known that he was gay for his entire NBA career. This means that 714 times, he’s gone into his team’s locker room alongside his teammates and, of those 714 times, there were 714 instances in which nothing out of the ordinary happened, and 714 times he went out to help his team in whatever way he could with the hopes of getting a win.
And, before you even think about letting the idea enter your head that the Nets were looking to sign a high-visibility player as a publicity stunt, I say only this: “puh-lease!” The Nets have had PLENTY of coverage – good and bad – and certainly don’t need the spotlight to get any larger as they attempt to live up to at least some of the promise that they had before the season began.
No, Collins was picked up because he was the best defending big man, savvy veteran and solid locker room presence available among a limited (and questionable) free-agent pool of bigs that at the time included Drew Gooden (who has since signed with the Washington Wizards), Kwame Brown, Chris Wilcox, Hakim Warrick, Eddy Curry, Ryan Gomes, Tyrus Thomas, and a few others.
So, as the next Nets game tips off and Collins takes the floor, he should definitely be applauded for his decision to carry the responsibility that comes with being an agent for human rights and equality. But, we should also never forget that, ultimately, the signing of Jason Collins was, as Nets management called it, “a basketball decision,” one that was made based on who he is and what he does on the Basketball court, and the character he has exhibited in the locker room and outside of the arena.
We can all be fairly certain that, as he weighed his decision about whether to come out at different times throughout the course of his career, he repeatedly chose not to out of fear for his livelihood, concern for friends and family, and that universal desire for privacy that many of us carry. But, as he stated in his Sports Illustrated article released that fateful day in April of 2013, “I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different,’” he said. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Hopefully, someday, all of the kids in similar classrooms will be able to just focus on the lesson at hand instead of their differences.
Photo credit to nydailynews.com