“I’m a 34 year old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” With these simple words, Jason Collins made history as the first actively playing out athlete in the NBA, NHL, MLB or NFL.
The overwhelming reaction to Collins’ important moment was positive. NBA Commissioner David Stern said that he was “proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue.”
More notable among the myriad positive statements from athletes was the words of Kobe Bryant since he had once been caught using a homophobic slur on camera. Kobe tweeted that Collins should not “suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others” and also spoke out against those using homophobic language.
Supportive statements of solidarity flooded in from across the globe as current athletes, retired players and fans sent their good will to the journeyman center as he bravely made history.
But not all the feedback was positive. Retired player Larry Johnson typified concerns about the locker room by stating that a person attracted to the same sex doesn’t “belong in a man’s locker room.”
It is ignorant to think that Johnson and other players never had a gay teammate or that players today don’t have a gay teammate and yet, there has been no locker room issue. Hall of Famer Charles Barkley took issue with the line of thought exemplified by Johnson and noted that “Everybody played with a gay teammate…and it’s no big deal. First of all, I think it’s an insult to gay people to think they’re trying to pick up on their teammates.” Albeit mixing sports here, NFL free agent punter and LGBT ally Chris Kluwe wrote to possible teammates concerned about being hit on/checked out: “Grow the f*** up. This is our job, we are adults, so would you kindly act like one? There are millions of people across America who work with gay co-workers every day, and they handle their business without riotous orgies consuming the work environment.”
Other criticisms were coated in Christian fundamentalism but had a core of media opportunism. On the day of Collins’ announcement, ESPN brought sportswriters Chris Broussard, a conservative evangelical, and LZ Granderson, a gay man, on the show Outside the Lines to discuss the news of Collins’ coming out.
After being fed a question from the ESPN moderator/host about whether or not Collins could be both gay and a Christian, Broussard said that Collins and others were “walking an open rebellion to God, to Jesus Christ.” Though, to his credit, even Broussard stated that “Collins displayed bravery with his announcement” and welcomed him to continue playing in the league.
ESPN quickly distanced themselves from the home brewed controversy and apologized for becoming a “distraction.” Yet, that was precisely what they intended to be. After all, it was the anchor who broached the topic of Collins’ religiosity. It is also well known that multiple ESPN shows have a history of making controversial statements that often overshadow the real news story. This has been a hallmark of corporate media and has had an increasing presence on ESPN programming as there is a greater push for higher ratings and publicity.
The last category of Collins critics were those of privilege. Radio show host Mike Francesa announced it meant “less than nothing” to him that “there is a gay player now out in the NBA.” He was joined by NFL player Asante Samuel who asked “Straight people are not announcing they’re straight, so why does everybody have to announce their sexuality or whatever?”
Such thinking as typified by Francesa and Samuel is heteronormativity. It fails to see that coming out of the closet is a brave choice, especially in a world where they face bullying, harassment, violence and possibly being kicked out of their home, where they can be legally fired from their jobs in many states and that laws still prevent them from having full rights. It fails to see that holding hands/kissing/being affectionate with an opposite sex partner is an open announcement of one’s heterosexuality.
The coverage of Jason Collins coming out has caused some legitimate criticism about the state of media coverage. Much of the reason his coming out has received so much more attention is that male sports, especially the NBA/NFL/MLB/NHL, often receive the vast majority of print and TV media coverage, especially compared to women’s sports.
There have been a multitude of athletes that have come out, especially in the women’s games. Yet, when women’s athletes come out, it often only reinforces the oft-used stereotype that female athletes are ‘mannish’ or ‘lesbians.’ When paired with a lack of substantive media coverage, the issue is even more compounded. Hence, stories like the recent announcement that dominant college player and #1 WNBA draft pick Brittney Griner was a lesbian was barely a blip on the radar.
Jason Collins’ Sports Illustrated announcement garnered so much attention because his admission directly undercuts the ‘macho real man’ ideology that permeates much of major professional sport and because of the substantive media attention already given to professional basketball.
The Jason Collins story is a sports story, but it is also a reflection of our society. It is a mirror of the decades of strong willed activism by the LGBT communities and their allies. It reflects the state of the world in which we live where the overwhelming majority of responses are pushing for inclusivity and acceptance, yet there remain some critics and naysayers. Even the media coverage about Collins from a perspective critical of male privilege is a reflection of the imperfect world in which we live.
The huge shift in having the first out athlete has struck a major blow against the stereotypical ideas about masculinity and shown that sport has become a much more inclusive space. As Collins admitted, other athletes paved the way for him. He has joined the pantheon of important figures that will help pave the way for future generations of athletes and how fans perceive/accept them.