At this point, you may feel inundated with Jason Collins talk. The 34-year-old free agent came out in dramatic fashion with a Sports Illustrated cover story that hits stands next week. And last night it was everywhere: from CNN to Sportscenter to, in all likelihood, your local news broadcast. And not without reason —it’s a pretty huge moment in sports. As the first active male athlete in a professional sport (MLB, NHL, NBA and NFL) to come out of the closet publicly, he’s earned himself a spot in LGBT history. And while we don’t talk too much about athletics and professional sports here at PW Style, Collins’ case deserves a moment of reflection and praise. So, let’s go there.
Let’s start with some details about the man: He’s a Stanford alum, he grew up in California, and he played the first seven of his now 12-season career with the New Jersey Nets. He’s a center and thusly 7 feet tall and 255 pounds, and he isn’t shy about the fact that he’s doing something pretty profound right now. Here’s a significant snippet from the opening of his SI interview:
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.
I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, “I’m different.” If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
There have been significant figures in the glacial tide of equality in the NBA and elsewhere, and Collins is well aware that he’s able to make this kind of announcement without a real fear of physical or professional consequences. From Jon Wertheim’s Viewpoint piece:
“Barely five minutes into a wide-ranging, hours-long conversation, Collins expressed a debt of gratitude for the other athletes, gay and straight, who helped accelerate this climate change, as it were. If he is the trailblazer, a team of others cleared the brush. Martina Navratilova, who’s not only regarded as the first active athlete to come out but also did so at the peak of her career? John Amaechi, the NBA player who came out of the closet in 2007, four years after his NBA career ended? NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, “straight allies,” who became gay rights advocates, especially within the last year? “The words thank you aren’t enough,” says Collins.”
So, that’s all nice and good—barriers broken, perhaps a taboo shattered and, for the most part, positive response. The NBA commish, David Stern, was interviewed with glowing and warm receptiveness. And then, of course, there were the tweets. But the fact that he got a congratulatory vote of confidence from the likes of the President Barack Obama (Michelle too!), Condi Rice, Chelsea Clinton (Stanford love) and Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III (more Stanford love), his former roommate, is pretty wild, too.
But here’s the creepy part. After everyone’s done praising and congratulating him, the speculating starts. Yes, he’s a free agent with less-than-All-Star status—meaning, whether he gets signed for a new season and to a new team is uncertain. And some are going as far—way too far—as to suggest that this was a ploy for him to keep his career going. A media stunt. In fact, in this pretty annoying Philly Mag blog post by Gail Shister, she lays it out as plainly as she sees it: Collins can wave a homophobia flag if he doesn’t get signed, and any team that picks him up could be waving a pride flag as a cash grab. It’s sad, but it got that ugly that quickly.
It’s a fascinating aspect of this story. Nate Silver weighed in on pure probabilities on his NY Times blog and looked to statistics to figure out the likelihood of Collins getting signed as a modest performer, with his age, in all reality, being a detriment. He’s got about a 61 percent chance. And his reputation for being a physical player, a humble and modest team player less interested in scoring than getting teammates scoring, a player that comes off the bench and ropes in a significant amount of rebounds and blocks, could be the tipping point. If it gets him signed for a new season, and thus in the spotlight as an out player until his run as an NBA athlete loses steam, we’ll be cheering him on with ROYGBV facepaint wherever he lands.
Lastly, to add a little more heart warmth to this whole affair, Collins wears the number 98 in honor of the year in which Matthew Shepard was kidnapped and killed in Laramie, Wyoming. This is a big week for gay athletes.