Center Jason Collins, who played for the National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards this past season, has revealed that he is gay in a personal essay that appeared in Sports Illustrated. He starts off the piece very simply and to the point: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay,” and then goes on to tell about his “journey of self-discovery.” Of course, his revelation has caused a great deal of discussion and debate.
The other night on CNN Anderson Cooper (whom I believe may be this generation’s Edward R. Murrow minus the cigarette) started talking about Collins in reference to Jackie Robinson. As the amazing recent film 42 clearly illustrates, Robinson was a pioneer in every sense of the word, breaking ground for African Americans not just in baseball but in all sports and society. Can we actually label Collins a “groundbreaker” for what he is doing, or is there something else going on here?
For one thing, Collins is not a megastar like Robinson was in baseball. He is no Kobe Bryant or LeBron James; he is far from even being an impact player. If you look at his career statistics, he is a rather average player who has been in the NBA for 12 seasons. He was traded during the year from Boston to Washington and will be looking for a job next year, so it is very interesting timing for his “coming out” and could be construed as a way to garner interest. Now, for certain, everyone knows his name.
Jackie Robinson’s impact on sports and society can still be felt today. In an effort to applaud Collins’ honesty and bravery, Cooper may have been overstating things. In the most obvious way, Collins does not face the enormous pressure that Robinson did from all sides, especially teammates. In fact, Collins has been getting tremendous support from fellow players right on up to President Barack Obama. If anything, this reveals that society has not only changed but progressed in tangible and meaningful ways.
In truth, what does it matter if Collins is gay or not? If he goes out and does his job, it does not matter at all. In fact, this is something in his private life, and everyone has a right to privacy. The fact that he came out and told people about it is his choice, and no doubt it was done to, as he put, remove “a huge weight” from his shoulders. If this makes living his life easier, then it is a good thing for him. If his example facilitates an awakening in others or empowers them, that is also a good thing.
Collins does reveal in the essay that his twin brother Jarran was “astounded” when he told him, but he does not mention Carolyn Moos. We have to imagine that his ex-fiancée is quite surprised as well. She dated him for eight years and had no idea that he was gay until now. Of course, there have been others before Collins, especially Hollywood stars, who dated women and even married them and were gay, and perhaps Collins had to get to the point where he could admit to others (and no doubt himself) what was true in his life.
Perhaps the bigger question is what does having any openly gay athlete in a major sport mean to the bigger picture? Is it a game changer the way Robinson’s presence on the Dodgers clearly was, or is it just a matter of fact kind of thing and now we move on? I think the impact may take time discern, and if other athletes start revealing themselves as gay, then we could begin connecting Collins to Robinson in more substantial ways.
One thing I think about in all this is the macho sports illusion. Everyone expects athletes to be big, strong, and masculine. Just look at the commercials that run during games and you can get an idea of the stereotype that has been promoted by advertisers: the beer, the girls, the razors, the cars, the gadgets – they are all geared to the so-called manly man. Even the old Saturday Night Live Schwarzenegger skit with Hans and Franz played into it with the “Don’t be a girly man” line. Someone like Collins clearly changes that stereotype, changes perceptions, and refutes the idea of what it is to be athletic, and in that sense his actions could also tend to make changes that will have a lasting impact.
So perhaps, just as with presidents, we have to let history judge Collins and see what this means to sports and society. For now, we have to believe Collins when he says that he “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.” Let us say that he has done that and more, and now let the dialogue begin.
photo credits: collins-sports illustrated; robinson-biography.com