Until two days ago, Jason Collins was part of the answer to an obscure trivia question. That is, name the two sets of twins that played center for the Stanford Cardinal men’s basketball team. And the answer is Jason and his brother Jarron along with Brook and Robin Lopez. But now Jason Collins is the answer to a less sports wonky trivia question, kind of first row on Jeopardy. The longtime NBA cener will forevermore be known as the first openly gay male on a current roster in a major American professional team sport.
This revelation had been coming for some time – not necessarily from Collins or even the NBA, but from men’s team sports certainly. It was assumed to come from an NFL locker room, if for no other reason than the sheer size of pro football rosters. The reaction both in and outside of the sport has been remarkably receptive, with few notable exceptions. ESPN’s Chris Broussard iterated his Christian belief that homosexuality was a sin, as he said was premarital sex, which, let’s face it put him at odds with almost all of the 20 something males that follow the sports network like a modern day Bible. But by and large, Collins has received an approval rating that would make any modern day politician blush.
Other NBA stars, like Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, have voiced support of Collins, using words like brotherhood and courage. President Obama phoned in his support, while his wife tweeted her’s. Major league baseball publicly backed Collins. In fact, a spokesperson from the league who was on campus yesterday said a sport like baseball that celebrates the breaking of the color barrier is morally obligated to champion diversity in all its forms. As he put it, it’s simply a matter of consistent policy. That’s an acknowledgement not only of history, but also of the modern realities of American sensibilities. In other words, it’s good business.
All in all, it’s been a pretty good ride for Collins, who until this week was probably anonymous to all but fans of journeymen backup centers for sub .500 teams. And if there is a person well equipped to lead the train on this issue, Jason Collins appears to be it – well spoken, Stanford educated, and respected by his peers. Calling anyone Jackie Robinson is a stretch, if for no other reason than context, but Collins should hold his own in the annals of history.
So now that this hidden barrier has been officially crossed, and I say officially because it’s been assumed for generations gay athletes have been part of the American sports landscape, the question is what now? As much as pro men’s team sports are chided as hyper masculine spaces of testosterone and intolerance, the reality is that pro athletes in this country occupy rarified air of wealth and privilege, where money and exposure have created something of an educated elite class that defies the perception of sport. That may be particularly true of the NBA, where the vast majority of players enjoy great affluence and tour all ends of the globe. Equating the NBA locker room the to local Y is like comparing Van Halen to a downtown cover band. They’re just not the same.
So the question isn’t whether Jason Collins’s announcement will create a safe place in NBA and NFL lockerrooms. It’s whether it will do that everywhere else. That means college and high school, urban centers and rural small towns and suburban oases and all the spaces that have historically felt unkind to people who are different. If you think it’s tough for Jason Collins to come out publicly, an educated man with money in the bank, imagine the challenge for a 16 year old boy who has far less of all that. Places like Steubenville, Ohio, my family’s original hometown but also a place where tragically members of the football team assumed the right to sexually assault and consume young women. Imagine the difficultly of publicly acknowledging your true self in that environment, where patriarchy isn’t just an assumption, but a weapon.
That’s the challenge ahead of us, one that by the way isn’t just limited to sports. And with that, Jason Collins has moved the needle, but not popped the balloon. But if nothing else, as with two trivia questions, he is clearly part of the answer.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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