The importance and value in what Jason Collins has done — beyond his own soul-freeing catharsis — showed itself swiftly and starkly as word spread across social media. America finally had its first active athlete in a major professional team sport reveal himself as gay. He wasn’t a big star. No matter. Eventually, someone had to stand up. On Monday, someone stood up.
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center,” Collins’ story in the new Sports Illustrated begins. “I’m black. And I’m gay.”
As intimately revealing as Collins’ coming out was, it was not as revealing as the reaction that immediately followed.
An enormous, uplifting wave of praise and support for Collins bloomed across Twitter, along with rogue, discordant notes of ignorance and intolerance that were like small black clouds scudding across a beautiful sky. We saw both extremes in Miami’s own backyard.
Heat star Dwyane Wade Tweeted: “Jason Collins showed a lot of courage today and I respect him for taking a stand and choosing to live in his truth. #nbafamily.” Within minutes thousands had re-tweeted Wade’s positive message.
Then there was new Dolphins star Mike Wallace, whose unfortunate reaction to the Collins news was this: “All of these beautiful women in the world and guys want to mess with other guys … I just don’t understand it.” Within minutes Wallace’s intolerance was so widely shouted down that he deleted the tweet, soon replacing it with an apology.
So the value in what Collins has done isn’t just that it finally sets ajar a door that had been firmly shut.
The even greater value is that it allows us to remind ourselves as a nation that our priorities are good.
Open-mindedness beats bigotry.
The accepting outnumber the prejudiced.
The reaction to Collins’ announcement suggests to us that for every drunken boor who might call out a homophobic slur in a basketball arena next season — and you know that person is out there — another thousand voices will be cheering Collins, respecting his bravery, his willingness to be The First.
That assumes there will be a next season for Collins, a 12-year veteran who ended this season with the Washington Wizards but is currently a free agent. He wants to continue playing. It has become important that he does.
It’s so strange.
The biggest star in sports Monday was a marginal player who isn’t even playing at the moment. A guy some of us had never even heard of before. You are officially a journeyman of little notice when the NBA teams you have played for (six) outnumber your career scoring average (3.6).
Collins jokes about “the three degrees of Jason Collins,” saying half-kiddingly that every NBA player has either been his teammate or knows someone who has. Sure enough, the Heat’s Mike Miller was Collins’ teammate in Memphis and sold a German shepherd dog to Collins. (Shadow is the dog’s name.)
Plenty of support
Now, suddenly, Collins, the reserve on the far end of the bench, is a pioneer of sorts in pro sports, and certainly a hero to many in the LGBT community. Praise and support for him Monday came from the White House, from Bill Clinton, from human-rights groups, from the NBA, from regular folks.
Kobe Bryant tweeted: “Proud of JasonCollins34. Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others.”
Steve Nash tweeted: “The time has come. Maximum respect.”
The reaction encourages us that Bryant and Nash are expressing what would be the prevailing opinion in sports’ closed society of locker rooms. It won’t be unanimous, for sure. We’d be naïve to think the homophobia or simple lack of understanding initially expressed by Wallace didn’t have plenty of people agreeing with Wallace, or that some of those wouldn’t be teammates or opponents.
The bully in the schoolyard loses his empowerment, though, when others stand up to him. The Neanderthal in the locker room using the gay slur must understand he is the one stuck out there on the far fringe, not speaking for the majority.
Wallace learned that hard lesson Monday. For him it was that an unpopular exercise of freedom of speech comes with its price.
Hopefully, other athletes who agreed with Wallace but knew better than to tweet it out loud learned their lesson, too.
The broader lesson: It just isn’t cool to be anti-gay. It isn’t right. Some might even seek their justification in religion, as when ESPN’s Chris Broussard on Monday called being gay “an open rebellion to God.” But surely love and tolerance should be religion’s overriding message, no?
Would it have been “better” if the first active major team sports player to come out was a bigger star? Sure. But Collins doing it first makes it that much easier for whomever decides to be second, or third.
Collins enjoys no star power, but his message is just as powerful, maybe more so, because he better represents that most gay people aren’t stars or celebrities, either. Bulletin: They’re regular folks. (To even say it like that in 2013 seems ridiculous, but then you read that original tweet from Wallace …)
No more hiding
Collins says in the SI piece that he first knew he needed to go public when his former Stanford roommate, Joe Kennedy, the Massachusetts congressman, mentioned marching in Boston’s 2012 Gay Pride Parade. Collins then decided, “I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, ‘Me, too.’ ”
He said, “It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret.” He spoke of wearing his “straight mask,” and that he grew tired of living under the threat of being outed.
“The announcement should be mine to make, not TMZ’s,” he wrote.
You know there will be a lot of athletes reading those words and nodding, because they understand. They are still guarding that big secret.
One of them will be next.
Jason Collins just made it a little bit easier.