Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 2, 2013

Jason Collins Makes Headlines So That Someone Else Won’t

It was a story scarcely meeting the definition of “news” while at the same time generating headlines on not just sports pages, but front pages. On the one hand, with more than 3,100 men on the active rosters of the teams in the four major North American sports, the one statistical certainty is that some number of current players are gay. Depending on which of several academic estimates of the frequency of homosexuality one chooses to use that number might be as low as a couple of dozen or as high as more than 150. But it certainly is not zero.

Whatever the number, it was equally certain that no active member of an NFL, NHL, NBA or MLB roster had ever chosen to reveal that he was gay. That was until this week, when NBA journeyman Jason Collins began a Sports Illustrated essay with the words “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black and I’m gay.” Because he was first, and because statistical certainty is not the same thing as established fact, Collins’s essay and the responses to it became the story of the week.

Collins doesn’t come across as some sort of attention-seeker. He wrote “I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.” Collins went on to acknowledge that for much of his life he denied his sexuality, dating women and once even getting engaged.

But like many once-closeted gays and lesbians who have chosen to come out, Collins cited the emotional burden of constantly living in a state of denial, of always projecting a false front, as a principal reason for coming out. And he clearly relishes the freedom which comes with telling the truth. “No one wants to live in fear,” Collins wrote; adding “I’ve always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don’t sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I’ve endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back.”

The vast majority of responses to Collins’s announcement were positive and supportive. Paul Pierce of the Celtics, one of two teams Collins played for this year, praised him, saying “I think what he did was a great thing; to open the door for a number of athletes who are going to have the courage to come out.” From all around the NBA came similar praise from a long list of stars, including the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, the Thunders’ Kevin Durant, and the Knicks’ Jason Kidd. NBA Commissioner David Stern said he was not surprised by the many words of support, telling an interviewer that “our players are actually knowledgeable and sophisticated on this issue, and our teams understand it completely. I would have expected them to be supportive, and they are.”

If support was generally strong, it was not universal. ESPN analyst Chris Broussard said Collins was “walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ.” Mike Wallace, a wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins, tweeted “All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys.” Some of the criticism was even directed not at Collins but at those who expressed support for him. LeRoy Butler, a former wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers tweeted congratulations to Collins, and shortly thereafter learned that a speaking engagement at a Wisconsin church for which he was to be paid $8,500 had been abruptly canceled.

Whatever the immediate reaction to Collins’s coming out, the larger issue of the long-term impact of his announcement hinges on a question that has yet to be answered; namely, will Jason Collins actually play in the NBA as an openly gay man? He has no contract for next season, and on July 1st becomes an unrestricted free agent. He will turn 35 early next season, and in a 12-year career he has never been a full-time starter. He is an aging big man, a career backup with limited and presumably declining skills, though highly regarded as a good team player.

Statistical maven Nate Silver posted a quick analysis on his Five Thirty Eight blog of free agent forwards or centers of similar age and number of games both played and started, finding that just over 60% earned contracts for the following season. So history suggests that it is certainly possible but by no means certain that Collins will take the court next season. His announcement and the broadly supportive response to it both probably serve to improve those odds a bit.

Should he fail to latch on with a team, the impact of Collins’s coming out will be diminished. He will become just one of a growing list of former players who revealed their sexual orientation after their playing days were over, and the major team sports will still not have played a single game with an openly gay player on the court or field or rink. That history will change only if some General Manager decides that Collins can help his team win. If that happens then at long last a new age will begin. Jason Collins will no doubt find that despite the many words of support this week, there will be some teammates who will keep their distance. He will certainly hear homophobic slurs shouted by drunken louts who will think themselves clever as they hurl invective down from the safety of an arena’s cheap seats.

With a ready smile that comes with the liberating exercise of telling the truth, Jason Collins appears perfectly capable of playing on through such abuse. If that should come to pass, then what will happen will be, well, basketball. Not guys messing with guys in the locker room, not an arena full of fans suddenly turned to stone for cheering a player who in the opinion of some bigoted mortal is going against God’s will, just basketball. Then whether it is in the NBA or one of the three other leagues, the next player to come out will have an easier time, and the headlines will be smaller. Smaller and smaller, until there aren’t headlines at all, which is as it should be. Just the games we fans love to watch, played by players we judge based simply on how they play those games, and nothing else.

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Responses

  1. Great column on an important topic. I think whether he plays or not, this is certainly a watershed moment for American sports, and for America in general. No doubt it will be easier for the next gay person to “come out.” And as you say, we’ll know we’ve moved forward as a society when this news is no longer news at all.
    Well done, as always,
    Bill

    • Thanks for your kind words Bill. In looking back at the week, I think that you are correct. Whether or not Collins plays again (though I still hope he does), a threshold has been crossed and there is no going back. And that, of course, is an entirely good thing. Thanks again,
      Mike


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