Thursday, May 2, 2013
Jason Collins: Why it Matters
Ever since Robbie Rogers came out as gay a few months back, and retired from soccer in the same announcement, there's been a charged feeling in the air that the first active openly gay athlete in a major North American team sport was coming very, very soon.
Well, that day has come, and the man of the hour is NBA veteran Jason Collins. I don't follow the NBA closely enough to be able to immediately recollect who he was — my mind went to Nick Collison — but if you're a bigger college than pro basketball fan like I am, then you probably remember him as part of the dominant duo he and his twin brother Jarron made at Stanford at the turn of the century.
Collins is a free agent, so it may be premature to refer to him as the first active openly gay NBA player, as it is possible that no team will pick him up.
It would be justifiable from a basketball perspective for any team to pass on him. Collins is 34, his minutes and the ability to stay healthy have dwindled, and has for the last several years established himself as a 3 ppg backup sent in to commit fouls.
That said, I really hope a team does pick him up. If not, an excruciating debate loaded with presumptions and unknowable assertions will rage ad nauseum on the Internet between those that believe homophobia spelled the end of his career, or declining basketball skills. Trying to be objective as possible, I think there's still a place in the NBA for a seven-footer that is limited, but not a complete stiff.
Reactions have been mostly positive and supportive (key word: mostly), with a number of dignitaries and NBA colleagues giving him a virtual pat on the back.
Likewise, man-on-the-street reactions (as long as you avoid the dark corners of the web, like the comment section on any Yahoo or ESPN article) have been mostly positive as well. The most prevalent reaction I've seen among those not feting Collins goes something like this:
"Why does it matter that he's gay? Who cares? Why are celebrating this decision to come out, like it's a big deal? It's not a big deal. No one cares who he has sex with. Stop making it a big deal."
This column is for those who feel that way.
I wish you were right. I wish it wasn't a big deal, and that, truly, no one cared. I wish it was viewed as bizarre and unnecessary to make such an announcement as it would be if Steve Nash called a press conference to announce he's growing a beard.
But you are confusing where we should be, and where I think we will be soon, with where we are at today.
Today, people care. And I'm not referring to the pro-gay contingent that revels in such news, which you seem to be annoyed by. I'm talking about the homophobes on the other side of the fence. Chris Culliver, for example, made it very clear he is very much against the idea of accepting a gay teammate. That wasn't in 1983 or 1993, it was essentially today. Do you think he's alone in feeling that way?
So, okay, you say, gay athletes should shrug off rubes like Culliver. If only the locus of anti-gay sentiment was as simple and benign as crass opinions. It's not. It slurs, it's violence, it's murder. Yes, murder. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, there were 30 anti-gay attacks in 2011 that ended with the death of the victim. THIRTY.
It's also workplace discrimination (as well as other forms of discrimination such as housing and hospital visitation rights) that's still legal in most states. The Gay Rights Movement has a ton of momentum right now, but man, we are not anywhere close to where we need to be.
You might say that the best way to fight homophobia is to ignore it. There's a "be the bigger man" line of thinking to that. But you cannot ignore bigoted laws by ignoring them away, nor is it an effective countermeasure against murderers.
The last great civil rights movement wasn't won by ignoring it. The Freedom Marches, the leaders like Martin Luther King, the protesters like Rosa Parks, the martyrs like Medgar Evers, they galvanized a nation and are responsible for the righteous marginalization of racists and abhorrence of racism today.
That's how you win hearts and minds, that's how you pave the way for a generation that truly "does not care," and this is no less than the civil rights struggle of our time. Join it.
And Jason Collins, let me add my voice to the thousands, if not millions, who have already spoken up to have your back. Bless you for having the guts to do what you did. With one well-written column, you changed the course of sports in the United States positively and permanently. You are the first domino to tip himself, and the dominoes falling will result in a sea change that will largely reduce (if not eradicate) bullying and worse against gay kids. You are, indeed, a hero.