Yesterday was a great day because someone announced they were gay.
It shouldn’t have been news, but it was. This is news, big news. This is the first out active male athlete in the major American team sports. For anyone interested in sports, this was a giant step towards the end of its last great discriminatory boundary. For anyone concerned with gay rights, the accursed world of sports became an accessible arena for discussion. And so for any of us concerned with both, this day was special.
The truly special day will be the one in which announcements such as this are no longer considered special. This ideal, perhaps far-fetched, is still the goal for anyone concerned with the freedom and protection of human dignity. And it is steps such as this, ones which take a sledgehammer to a social stigma that has long needed it, that give us a chance of realizing this.
Therein lies the enormity of Collins’s announcement. He is a veteran, and a widely respected one, who brought an overdue and highly sought-after resolution to the question of who was going to be first, and did so completely out of the blue. More pertinently, he did so correctly. In the Sports Illustrated article that announced his news, Collins speaks from a place of candor and depth of feeling, without the chip on his shoulder that could so readily be developed in light of his situation. His nuanced introspection gives no one any reason to think less of him, to judge his character and the words it brings forth with anything less than sincerity and respect. If you don’t believe homosexuality is right, and/or you think less of homosexuals, Collins is challenging your belief with the very delivery of the words.
Context is needed to temper any overreactions, however. The world hasn’t been changed; indeed, the world of sport might not even recognize any palpable change for a while. Collins’ announcement is but a blip on the global problem of discrimination against homosexuality. We live in a world in which homosexuality remains illegal in 76 countries, and punishable by death in nine of them. Homosexuality remains an unacceptable reality in much of the world and many walks of life. One gay sportsman isn’t stopping this.
However, in the context of team sports, we’re seeing history made. And, with only the rarest of exceptions, we’re seeing this history accepted. In recent years, the likes of Orlando Cruz, Gareth Thomas, John Amaechi, Steven Davies and Brittney Griner have come out, pushing back the barrier slightly further each time. Major American team sports were one of the few hurdles remaining. With this announcement, we get one step closer to normalcy. And normalcy is the aim.
This, then is a plea. A plea then for everyone to both recognize this statement for what it is and for what it isn’t. A plea for everyone to treat Collins the same as they did yesterday, which is a plea he himself rose above making. A plea to other players not to believe Collins isn’t going to start jumping their bones every time he sees them naked (which he’s managed to avoid doing so far), and to dispense with the idea that locker room sanctity is threatened by the realization that people are different. And a plea to us all — if Collins isn’t in the NBA next year, let’s not assume this is why. If we’re willing to believe that being a gay NBA player is no big thing, we must also be willing to believe that being a gay free agent is no big deal, either. If we want to develop a society whereby people do not judge or treat others on their sexuality, we mustn’t look for instances of it happening.
If Jason Collins has already played his last NBA game, let us not forget that he can’t score, rebound, shoot, pass or defend the rim. He contributes very little as a player — even the one tangible strength he does have, his man-to-man defensive versatility on opposing bigs, is mitigated by his foul rates. Indeed, Collins himself lauds his own ability as being good at fouling. That doesn’t cut it for anyone else.
If we want to realize this ideal, whereby coming out means nothing, recognition of Collins as a player must come before any recognition of him as a person. Whatever happens in his career now, Collins’ homosexuality can and will be cited as a reason, be it being left on the shelf (“discrimination!”) or signing with a new team (“great PR move!”). If this happens, the good work will be all for naught. It is up to us to prevent that.
The world is a slightly better place for Collins’ announcement. He’s done his bit. Let’s do our bit to keep it that way.