Yesterday, Jason Collins of the Washington Wizards came out. He therefore becomes the first active male professional American major team sports athlete out as openly gay.
All those modifiers are necessary, because there have certainly been other prominent gay athletes. Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King in tennis. Greg Louganis, the Olympic diver. Sheryl Swoopes in women’s professional basketball. John Amaechi, in the NBA, and Dave Kopay and Kwame Harris, of the NFL, all came out after they retired, as did Billy Bean in baseball and, most recently, Robbie Rogers, an English premiere league soccer player.
What makes Jason Collins unique, therefore, is that he’s still an active player, a current male team sport athlete who still has to deal with whatever issues a pro locker room brings. All that icky showering and so on. So, another milestone passed, another bridge crossed. And pretty uneventfully, in this case. Since his coming-out article came out yesterday in Sports Illustrated, he’s received overwhelming Twitter support, including heartfelt and enthusiastic congratulations from Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson, from Steve Nash (“Maximum support!), from NBA commissioner David Stern (“proud you assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue”, from Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama, from fellow player (irony alert) Rudy Gay, and from RuPaul (“I’m still gayer than you!”).
All his former coaches weighed in positively. Kevin Love and Metta World Peace (the NBA needs a guy named Understanding), tweeted their support. Current players with Collins’ back; basically a Who’s Who of stars: Dwayne Wade and Al Horford, Paul Pierce and Baron Davis, dozens more. There have been, so far that I know, zero negative responses from NBA players, past or present. Collins says that if anyone says anything privately, he’ll deliver an elbow and a hard pick and then let it go. There are basketball ways to deal with homophobia.
To me, it’s interesting that it’s Jason Collins. Richard Greenberg wrote a terrific play ten years ago about this scenario. Take Me Out is about a baseball player coming out. Saw it on Broadway and liked it immensely, while still quibbling over plot points. In Greenberg’s play, the ballplayer, Darren Lemming, is a superstar; he was thought to have been based on Derek Jeter. (Uh, after Minka Kelly, Hannah Davis, Jessica Biel et. al., no, I don’t think Derek Jeter’s gay.) Take Me Out opened on Broadway at a time when there were rumors about Mike Piazza, who probably isn’t either. Point is, Jeter and Piazza are both first ballot Hall-of-Famers. Greenberg’s point is that to do something like come out, a player would need the protection of genuine athletic greatness. No one’s going to hassle Derek Jeter.
That was then, this is now. Jason Collins is hardly a star. He’s a journeyman career backup center.
Here’s his profile: graduated from Stanford, with his identical twin, Jarron Collins. Both brothers are seven feet tall; neither would have a career if they weren’t. Basketball is a sport that rewards height, and a seven-footer can play professionally without being particularly athletic. Jarron Collins played for the Jazz, and both Collins brothers fit the same profile–they’re not very quick or fast or strong, and aren’t great jumpers. So take a guy who is very tall, but not much of an athlete, a disciplined and intelligent man. Well, he can learn how to shoot–shooting’s just muscle memory, just takes practice. Both Collinses can hit a fifteen foot jumper. Jason Collins can get good rebounding position, and he can set a pick or screen. He can’t block shots, despite his size (he can’t jump), but he can hold his position and take a charging foul. He’s not a good one-on-one defender (not quick enough), but will battle the other team’s center, using his size. He plays, in other words, an inelegant style of basketball, not pretty, but in a limited role, effective. Make Jason Collins your starting center, and you’re not likely a good team, but bring him off the bench and play him 12-15 minutes a night, and he can help you. My point is, that’s not really the profile I would have suspected for the first out ballplayer. And yet, it really is exactly the same profile John Amaechi had–and Amaechi came out within a couple of years of retiring from basketball. Don’t know what to make of that, probably nothing. Just this: so far, at least, superstars haven’t been the ones to out themselves. Maybe they feel like they have too much to lose.
I assume Collins likes basketball. But as an intelligent, articulate, disciplined guy, with a degree from Stanford, he could have pursued a number of careers. Pro basketball pays the best. Ten years in the NBA will allow him the financial independence to do literally anything he wants to do with his life. And he’s only 34 years old, a young man, with a bright future.
His announcement is interesting in other respects. He’s an identical twin, and very close to his brother, Jarron, but Jarron’s straight and was apparently completely taken by surprise by Jason’s announcement. Their Mom, though, wasn’t surprised by it; said she’d always known.
For those arguing that being gay is or isn’t biologically determined, the Collins brothers would seem to complicate the issue or confirm biases, depending. I don’t think it matters. Sexuality and sexual orientation are complicated matters, and for me, this happens to be one instance where the best evidence is actually anecdotal. Jason Collins says he’s known he was gay for years, that it dates from when Jarron was dating a girl seriously and he wondered why he didn’t seem to feel the same way about girls that his brother did. Why is that story not enough? The dude’s gay. Power to him.
And see, that’s where this gets fun. Jason Collins is a black basketball player, a center, and gay. That’s how he put it in the SI article. So count the exploded stereotypes; Jason Collins is not, I don’t know, swishy. He’s a blue collar dude, a tough, hard-nosed player who plays a very physical style of ball. He’s a pick setter, a screener, a rebounder. He takes on the meanest, toughest players in the league, and he battles ’em to a standstill. None of that impacts, or is impacted by, his sexuality.
Why did he come out? He says it’s because his roommate at Stanford, a straight guy, also a Kennedy and currrently a Congressman (Joe Kennedy) told him about marching in a gay rights parade, and he thought, ‘dude, he’s straight and he’s marching for my rights? Why wasn’t I there?”
One wonders what effect this will have on Collins’ career. I think it’s quite possible that his career may have ended were it not for this announcement. This last season, he was a back-up center for the Washington Wizards, a terrible team. A bad, older player on a bad team, in other words. His contract is over, and he’s now a free agent, able to sign with anyone. I wonder who wants him. He’s not actually all that good–never was. Maybe New Orleans, backing up Anthony Davis. He could be a mentor for a talented young center, as much a coach as teammate. And New Orleans would certainly welcome him, one would think.
But my gosh, the reaction is interesting, isn’t it? No negative responses, none? Nothing but support, from teammates, coaches, league officials, politicians? Everyone happy for him, everyone saying ‘good for you!’ It’s not like homophobia has disappeared, but isn’t driving it underground a victory? Have we really come this far, that fast?
One last detail: players can choose their uniform numbers. Last year, Collins changed his number to 98. Yesterday he explained why. It was in honor of Matthew Shepherd. Poor Matthew Shepherd, of Wyoming. Beaten to death by homophobic psychopaths. In 1998. So Jason Collins is out. So, here’s one more voice, added to the chorus: Good for you, big guy. Hoop it up, dude, and we all got next.