A 21st CENTURY NON-STORY
All that Matters Now is that Jason Collins can Ball
The reaction to Jason Collins becoming the first openly gay active NBA player has been refreshing: while there has been much support, there has also been much discussion about whether this is even a big story. In a popular culture sports world where narrative rules all, this would-be massive story is playing out in the media the way it should – support and praise for the pioneer that Collins is, without the unnecessary overreaction (by now, everyone has seen the movie 42: The Jackie Robinson Story, athlete equality is far from a new concept).
On Sunday, February 23rd, 2014, Jason Collins became the first openly gay male active athlete to play in a big four professional sport in the US (Football, Basketball, Baseball, Hockey). Collins, a NBA veteran big-man, known for his defense and toughness, signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets. The signing came nearly 10 months since he last played in the league and since publicly coming out in a Sports Illustrated Article in May 2013. The best part about Collins’ debut was the normalcy of it.
Collins, who played in two NBA Finals, was strictly business when asked about his breakthrough, historical moment, “I played for 12 years in this league so I know how to play basketball,” Collins said. “It’s just about getting my timing back. So I’m ready. Let’s do it.” Nets GM Billy King was similarly business-like when asked about why he had signed Collins saying, “We needed to increase our depth inside.” Prior to Collins signing with the Nets, current Nets teammate and former Celtics teammate, Kevin Garnett, didn’t even mention Collins’ sexuality, saying of Collins, “(he is a) great competitor, plays team basketball, is for the team, great guy, great character.” Former Celtics teammate and current Nets teammate Paul Pierce had similar supportive comments, saying that the team was embracing him “with open arms.” Nets management and locker room leaders alike treated the Collins signing as it should be treated: with a strictly basketball-minded focus.
Fellow NBA players and other athletes took to Twitter to voice support, but really, the commentary was about him as a player. Dwyane Wade, speaking to Collins’ toughness and propensity to foul, tweeted, “One thing I know about him is he fouled very hard…. Welcome back.” Collins lived up to his reputation in his season debut, picking up 5 fouls in 11 minutes of play.
An important item to remember is that Collins is not the first gay professional athlete in the US. Former NBA player John Amaechi and former NFL player Wade Davis are two of many athletes that came out after they retired. The general reason why these athletes did not come out during their playing days was a fear of being looked at as something other than a teammate and competitor. Davis said in an interview, “You just want to be one of the guys, and you don’t want to lose that sense of family. Your biggest fear is that you’ll lose that camaraderie and family.” Given the comments coming from veteran leaders in the Nets locker room, this fear may no longer be a prevalent issue for gay athletes going forward.
While several athletes came out after their playing days were over, several others have recently come out during their active playing careers. Both male and female openly gay athletes have largely (at least recently) enjoyed acceptance, support, and most importantly (to every athlete), success, all of which has paved the way for Collins’ surprisingly muted introduction.
Among a few recent, notable examples, in February 2013, professional US soccer player Robbie Rogers came out on his personal blog, promptly retired, then later signed and played with the playoff-bound Los Angeles Galaxy of the MLS in May 2013. Another soccer star, Megan Rapinoe, came out in 2012 in the lead up to the London Olympics, where she and her US Women’s Soccer teammates would eventually take home the gold medal. Liz “Girl-Rilla” Carmouche became the first openly gay Mixed Martial Artists, and fought current female bantamweight champion, Ronda Rousey for the title in February 2013.
Perhaps the most publicized openly gay athlete is Michael Sam, former Defensive End for the University of Missouri Tigers and current NFL draft prospect. Sam had told his Missouri teammates of his sexual preference prior to the season. In turn, his teammates protected his decision to not come out until after the season, Sam won Defensive Player of the Year, and Mizzou went 12-2. Given both Sam’s and the team’s success, there was clearly no negative effect or impact in the Tigers’ locker room or on the field as a result of Sam coming out.
No one is underplaying the historical importance of what transpired on Sunday: the first openly gay NBA player is a massive breakthrough in professional sports. Yet, at the same time, the impact of the story of Collins’ sexuality is really tough to measure. Of course we hope that the great public support Collins has received will positively affect other gay athletes and views about gay athletes. And of course, Collins will forever be known as a pioneer for gay athletes.
But really, it is difficult to see this story carrying on for very long. After the initial support and notoriety, the NBA (and hopefully most other professional leagues in the future) will move on, and, at some point, ‘gay athletes’ will just be ‘athletes’. After all, Collins’ sexuality has zero impact on the court; his real impact in the league will continue to rest on his toughness and experience and maybe making the Brooklyn Nets relevant in the playoffs … until they play the Heat.