In the real world, Jason Collins’ declaration of self-determination is cheered, supported, trumpeted.
In a perfect world, Collins’ statement that he is gay would not be worthy of front-page coverage, congratulations from the White House, or a tweet of solidarity from Dwyane Wade.
That’s the good and bad in Collins’ courageous act of breaking the straight line in major American team sports.
He is news.
And, why is he news?
Martina Navratilova has been out for 32 years; an entire generation has grown up knowing that one of the all-time tennis stars is a lesbian. Greg Louganis told us in 1994 that he won Olympic diving medals while hiding his sexuality and his HIV diagnosis. Brittney Griner came out last week to no fanfare, following the lead of several female basketball players over many years, boxer Orlando Cruz, U.S. soccer players, a Welsh rugby player, an English soccer player, Billie Jean King, Billy Bean, Dave Kopay, and John Amaechi.
Those are just the athletes, a tiny slice among the innumerable men and women who have said, “I am your (fill in the blank with boss, senator, father, sister, teacher, favorite actor, teammate, friend ) and I’m gay.”
What did Jerry Seinfeld say? “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
We’re happy for Jason Collins, a 7-foot NBA center who finished the season with the Washington Wizards. But sad that it was a gut-wrenching decision he felt he could not make until age 34.
We’re grateful for his public announcement. But regretful that a basic, inalienable expression was floodlit as a public announcement.
Collins is the talk of the nation. Hurray for the dialogue.
Collins is the talk of the nation. Shame on the ignorance and intolerance curdling too much of the conversation.
We would like to take in stride the fact that gays play in the NBA. Common sense, right? There are some 450 men in the league. About 3,000 more in the NFL, NHL, and Major League Baseball. Is every single man on every single roster a heterosexual? No way.
Collins is noteworthy. Gay-athlete pioneers preceded him but did not receive the same magazine-cover or morning-show treatment — not that they would have wanted it. He is necessary.
Trailblazers on the uncompleted paths to women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights made progress precisely because they illuminated the barriers ahead.
Jackie Robinson was not the first prominent professional black athlete. But he broke an unwritten rule in baseball, and the ripple effect of his bravery was felt far beyond his sport.
It would be nice not to have to acknowledge Collins. But then we would be glossing over the negative reaction, as well.
New Miami Dolphin receiver Mike Wallace reacted with stunning insensitivity and foolishness by tweeting, “All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys. I’m not bashing anybody don’t have anything against anyone but I just don’t understand it,” which he and the team apologized for, quickly. His comment is reflective of a mass misunderstanding heard in offices and on talk radio — things like “lifestyle” and “chromosomes” and “sin.” Some of it willful, some of it hateful, some of it born of fear, some of it sheer ignorance.
Wallace’s comment also brought to mind one of the main reasons male athletes do not come out of the closet. It’s not because of their family and friends. It’s not because of sponsors — Nike is seeking a gay athlete around whom it can build a ground-breaking campaign. It’s because of teammates and coaches who have been indoctrinated in homophobia from a young age.
What a mixed message these athletes must decode. The locker room and playing field contain an undeniable homoerotic vibe: Naked men conversing and showering together. Physical entanglements of tackling, wrestling, guarding the post, celebrating. The positioning of the quarterback’s hands “under center.”
And yet male athletes are among the harshest critics of any behavior not befitting the tenets of machismo.
Minimize Collins’ announcement and minimize hypocrisy, too.
“The NBA is turning into Glee,” said Fox News reporter Todd Starnes. “Have any professional athletes announced they are heterosexual today?”
Here Starnes and Fox echoed many in the conservative chorus — downplaying Collins’ announcement even though one of their platform planks has been to oppose gay marriage and gays in the military.
Rush Limbaugh: “If you want to say you’re gay, fine. But does it have to be rammed down everybody’s throats?”
Narrow-minded people who have fought so hard against inclusion are trying to defuse progress by shrugging, “What’s the big deal?”
It is a big deal. A symbolic first step in a major sport for an active player. Robinson’s jersey No. 42 is revered for what it signifies, and every baseball player wears it on a special day of the season. Maybe the NBA will have a No. 98 day in Collins’ honor in the future.
We shake the hand that Collins raised in the air so that for the next guy we can merely wave. And for the ones after him, applause, indistinguishable from the applause for their teammates.