From the staff

Column: NBA's first openly gay player and the trouble with the word 'tolerance'

sruinsky@newsobserver.comMay 16, 2013 


ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 05: Jason Collins #34 of the Atlanta Hawks against the San Antonio Spurs at Philips Arena on April 5, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia.

KEVIN C. COX — Getty Images

“Tolerance” was a buzzword after professional basketball player Jason Collins wrote a recent story in Sports Illustrated announcing that he is gay.

Collins, who became the first current male athlete in a major American team sport to publicly reveal he is gay, wrote of his decision to discuss his sexual orientation, saying, “I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding.”

The response in the sports world was generally supportive. Even Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who was fined $100,000 last year for using a gay slur during a basketball game, praised Collins’ decision to go public about his private life.

Much of the coverage of Collins has included the word “tolerance.”

Google “Jason Collins and tolerance.” Even after filtering out Collins’ own use of the word, the match comes up in story after story, including in The News & Observer.

Look up tolerance in the dictionary. One of the definitions is “the act of allowing something,” Another describes “indulgence.”

Other definitions: a “fair, objective and permissive’ attitude toward practices and opinions that differ from one’s own,” and “allowing freedom of behavior: allowing or enjoying the freedom to behave in ways others might consider unacceptable, particularly in sexual matters.”

Something to aspire to?

Even the most inclusive definition contains the notion of one group giving another permission to be different.

So, is tolerance a good thing to aspire to?

We “tolerate” heat and cold, broccoli, a sore knee.

Most of us probably don’t “tolerate” a warm breeze, a baby’s smile or a pay raise.

How you feel about Jason Collins and his announcement is a personal decision and there are plenty of points of view about his lifestyle.

Professional sports has long struggled with the issue.

Even before Collins’ revelation, pro basketball, hockey and football – where the idea of having an openly gay teammate has been too tough to even contemplate – began programs to help athletes adapt to the presence of openly gay teammates.

The Hurricanes video

The Carolina Hurricanes seem on the right track.

The team recently released a video in cooperation with the You Can Play Project encouraging gay and lesbian inclusivity in professional sports. You can see find it here:

About the video, Hurricanes forward Kevin Westgarth says, “You want people to feel comfortable being who they are and know it’s not going to affect what people think of them and what they’re able to do ... if you’re good enough to play on my team, I want you on my team.”

In the history of sports, athletic ability has not always been the measure of what makes a valued teammate.

Many baseball players were unable to tolerate the presence of Jackie Robinson as the first African American player in the Major Leagues. A large number of those who put up with him did so despite his race and some probably described themselves as “tolerant.”

There is a big difference between “tolerance, acceptance and understanding.”

Words matter.

Steve Ruinsky is sports editor of The News & Observer. or 919-829-4530

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