There has been intense anticipation for the first active, gay athlete; There have been swirling rumors in the NFL of a coalition of gay players for years, but nothing had ever come to fruition. You either stayed quiet about your homosexuality or didn’t play the sport. It was that simple. Until Monday.
NBA center Jason Collins came out as gay in a feature story for Sports Illustrated this Monday, becoming the first active player in the four major American professional team sports to do so.
“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation,” Collins 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.”
After the initial shock had worn off from Collins’ statement, the next question most fans struggled with was exactly who this Jason Collins character was. While not exactly a LeBron James, or even a Greg Oden, Collins has quietly been making his name known to a select few in the NBA world for quite some time.
His career stat line is not one that would tend to make him particularly well-known, standing at 3.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, .5 blocks and 41 percent from the field. He’s not great at scoring, rebounding or blocking, even standing at seven feet. He’s well known for a much different reason than that.
When Collins’ Hawks and Howard’s Magic met in the 2010-2011 playoffs, Dwight Howard was averaging nearly 22 points and 14 boards per 36 minutes played. With Collins (having another statistically unremarkable year) on the court against Howard, he was limited to 16.1 points and 12.2 rebounds.
It wasn’t just an off series for Howard, either: in his 155 minutes on the court without Collins, he averaged 26.9 points and 13.5 rebounds, while the Magic outscored the Hawks by 20. With Collins, the Hawks outscored the Magic by five. The numbers speak for themselves.
And then, suddenly, this man who’d hardly been heard of, short of stats buffs, became a household name. With his announcement, the collective sports community held their breath, waiting for the backlash that would inevitably come from the wide world of sports, and come it did.
In a special edition of Outside the Lines on ESPN, reporter Chris Broussard said Collins’ sexual preferences were “an open rebellion to God.” Larry Johnson, the basketball and business operations representative for the New York Knicks, said in a tweet that gay men like Collins would make him “extremely uncomfortable in the locker room.”
And yet the negatives did not come nearly as prominently as did the positives. Statements from the NBA Players Association, tweets from Kobe Bryant and a personal phone call from President Barack Obama are just a few examples of the “incredible” support Collins has received. Collins said, “He [Obama] was incredibly supportive and he was proud of me, said this not only affected my life but others going forward.”
Obama said in a later press conference that Collins demonstrated progress the United States has made in recognizing the full equality of gays and lesbians. Obama said they deserve “not just tolerance, but full recognition that they’re truly a part of the American family.”
Since the turn of the millennium, Wall Street and corporate America have created departments focusing on LGBT rights. More recently, President Obama ended the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” program in the US military. Obama further called for equal rights for homosexual America in his inaugural address, and individual states are slowly but surely working towards that goal.
Sports can, and hopefully will, be that final change necessary in the LGBT movement. At their fullest, sports cannot discriminate. Age, gender, weight, sexual orientation do not, cannot matter, so long as you can play.
“This is our time and our cause,” Ravens LB and equal rights activist Brendon Ayanbadejo said in a USA Today column several months before Collins came out. “Everything we know as athletes, teammates, spokesmen and vehicles of American pastimes compels us toward the kind of action and camaraderie we saw nearly 66 years ago [in Jackie Robinson’s teammates]. It’s as simple as putting our arm around of another athlete. It’s a gesture; it’s a pledge; it’s solidarity at its most basic. Our Jackie is coming. We need to pave the way.”
Many analysts are quick to jump on Collins, scoffing at the notion that he could ever play in the NBA again. He’s old, he had a horrendous 2012-2013 campaign and coming out has, perhaps undeservedly, earned him an enormous media following (it’s quite possible we could see the LGBT media follow Collins game-to-game, much as the Japanese media do for their stars in the MLB) that could prove to be a major headache for teams.
His stat line in 2012-2013 simply cannot be disputed: 1.1 points, 1.6 boards and a 31 percent shooting clip is often more than enough to earn someone who still has a contract some bench time, and someone at the end of their contract (Collins, for example) a ticket out of town. I can, however, present an alternative statistic.
In his 384 minutes on the floor this year, even with his atrocious stat line, Collins’ teams did far from poorly: they outscored their opposition by two points. More indication that while he does not dominate on the offensive front and never tosses up monster stats, he plays shut down defense, which more than makes up for his production on offense.
Further, his age isn’t a point of concern, unless you’re looking for things to hate. At 34, Collins is far from an everyday player. But he hasn’t tried to play as such, and has always found success in his niche role. It’s hard to play for 12 years if someone doesn’t see something in you.
As for media concerns, Collins has dealt with an onslaught of media, hatred and love since coming out. Granted, that’s only since Monday, but the SI piece (written by Collins himself) is articulate, calm and level-headed.
That coupled with his superb media interactions leads me to believe Collins himself would not be distracted by the media onslaught he’s sure to face if he should step on the court again: it would be the rest of your team that’s in doubt. And if they can’t handle media pressure, there’s no spot for them in the NBA in the first place.
Collins is ready to play, but the question lingers as to whether someone in the NBA is ready for him to play. It only took one team to break the color barrier in sports when the Brooklyn Dodgers did so in 1947, and it only takes one team to break another equal rights barrier we face today. This is about more than just basketball, more than just sports. This is about human rights, about treating human beings as human beings. Your move, NBA. The whole world is watching.