Good for Jason Collins. It’s not easy to do what the man just did, taking a personal decision and deciding to go very public with his sexuality. Hopefully his announcement will convince others to follow suit, while promoting tolerance amongst male athletes in the ‘Big 4’ sports here in the United States.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the landmark moment that will shift the debate of sexuality in sports for good. Jason Collins simply isn’t a big enough personality on, or off the court to make that happen.
Those who had never heard of the Stanford graduate before Monday didn’t necessarily care that he played in just 38 games last season, averaging 1.1 points and 1.6 rebounds-per-game. They didn’t know that he was traded from Boston to Washington in February for Jason Crawford, nor do they care that he was a member of Stanford’s 1998 NCAA Final Four team, and the Nets 2002 and 2003 NBA Finals teams.
They just care that he said the words.
Collins becomes the first male athlete actively engaged in a major professional U.S. league to officially come out of the closet. It doesn’t mean that he’s the first gay athlete on the planet (there are plenty) and given his current status as a part-time role player, he probably won’t face the same scrutiny that others have faced before him.
And you don’t need to utter the words ‘I’m gay’ to receive said scrutiny.
For instance, Collins isn’t walking into the same lion’s den that figure skater Johnny Weir had to endure during the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino. The three-time U.S. Figure Skating champion didn’t officially come out until 2011, but left little doubt to anyone who had met, watched, or even heard of him.
Weir was the first male athlete to show up at the Olympics and admit to the press that he wasn’t going to stop acting ‘princessy.’ He did an interview with ESPN’s Jim Caple, while getting a mani-pedi. He was one of the first in history to have his influence on a Will Ferrell movie toned down instead of toned up. They needed a straight romantic subplot for Jon Heder’s character in ‘Blades of Glory.’
And life was grand after Weir had the best short program of his life, finishing second and setting a personal best after the first night of competition at the Olympics. When the magic wore off 48 hours later and a disastrous free skate led to a fifth place finish, everything that could be associated with being a loud, proud, gender-bender reared its ugly head … including the death threats. All in front of a larger television audience than any NBA Finals game in recent memory.
Weir’s Olympic nightmare won’t happen to Collins, but it could happen to other, more notable athletes who decide to follow suit. Those who compete with the game on the line, are used as marketing fodder to sell tickets, individuals who are more than a chapter book of sports clichés when dealing with the press.
Ironically enough, the backlash Collins may eventually face won’t have anything to do with his sexuality. With the offseason looming, the seven-footer just became the NBA’s most intriguing free agent since LeBron James in 2010 … and for all the wrong reasons.
If others don’t follow in Collins’ groundbreaking footsteps, the story will no longer be about a man and his struggle with his personal identity. Much like James gave us ‘The Decision’ a few years back, Collins could prove to be the perfect sideshow during a midsummer TV dry spell. If you thought the coverage of Tim Tebow’s every move was insufferable, this could be worse. Much worse.
What if Collins were to sign with the Miami Heat, a 12th man on a team writing its script as an NBA dynasty? How many top stories centered around Instagram photos of Collins and the new ‘Big Three’ will appear? Where will reporters go to offer minute-by-minute updates? Will there be TV segments dedicated to discussing if those who cheer against the Heat are homophobic?
As wild as it seems, this is already happening, mere hours into what should have been a new era for tolerance in professional sports. If equality for everyone in a locker room regardless of race, gender or sexuality means creating a media circus that becomes bigger than the team, what’s the point and who does it help?
And if that happens, there isn’t enough in Jason Collins’ game to shift the conversation back to the hardwood, where it needs to be. We want to root for the guy, but if he ends up playing six minutes of garbage time and garners 60 minutes of postgame coverage, most of us will be rooting for him to get off the screen.
Just like Tim Tebow.