Jason Collins has never been a tremendous NBA player. But he has provided us with a tremendous opportunity by becoming the first active male athlete in a major U.S. team sport to announce he is homosexual.
It is hard to overstate the significance of Collins’ announcement, which he made in a first-person story for this week’s Sports Illustrated. I can’t believe it has taken so long for this to happen, 32 years after Martina Navratilova was revealed to be gay in 1981 and kept dominating women’s tennis.
But the fact is that it has – in part because so many male locker rooms remain fueled by a towel-snapping, macho mentality. Collins has become the first active male athlete brave enough to step out of what remains a very cramped closet.
Look, this isn’t about politics. This is about tolerance and acceptance.
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Collins isn’t asking to have a same-sex marriage performed in an NBA locker room. Don’t confuse that issue with this one.
Collins is simply asking to be able to do his job and to not have to live a lie any longer. As he wrote in the story, he wants to be able to sleep better at night. I don’t know him, but I am proud of him.
In today’s society, if you don’t think you know someone who is gay, you are kidding yourself. If you don’t have any gay friends, that’s your loss.
One of my best friends from high school announced he was gay a number of years ago. Although we live in different states now, we remain close. He has stayed at our house and hung out with me and my four kids. I hope you are saying now: “Yeah, so what – you want a medal or something?” Because if you are, that probably means you have a similar friendship, so that is no big deal to you.
But this is a big deal in men’s sports.
In some ways, the world of sports operates in its own parallel universe. Its prejudices sometimes last longer, but its breakthroughs can also be felt more deeply.
A whole new generation is discovering the strength of Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, through the movie “42.” Collins has strength as well, although he certainly is making his statement in a far more tolerant society than Robinson or Navratilova did.
There was a flood of celebrity and athletic support for Collins Monday. Among the members of the praise band: Bill Clinton, Spike Lee, the White House and Kobe Bryant, who was fined $100,000 a couple of years ago for using a gay slur when berating an NBA official.
Tolerance not only is the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do from a business perspective. Homophobic comments these days in sports generate incredible backlash, as men such as former NBA player Tim Hardaway and San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver have found out.
Would the impact of this announcement be greater if Collins were an NBA all-star in the prime of his career instead of a 34-year-old journeyman center who has played for six teams in 12 years, is unsigned for next season and admits in his magazine essay that he’s mostly known for fouling hard and setting good picks? Sure it would.
But I believe Collins will have an NBA job somewhere next season for the veteran minimum. Wherever he goes, it will be something of a circus at first (as it will be with Tim Tebow and his next landing spot).
Yet Collins is a low-maintenance, high-character player who also happens to be 7 feet tall and 255 pounds. He’s tough.
I would imagine NBA commissioner David Stern – who has worked very hard to make his league a tolerant workplace -- will quietly help this job-hunting process along if necessary. If nothing else, the NBA could create a position and hire Collins for its league office.
But the best-case scenario is that Collins plays – that he’s simply out there, through the taunts and the cheers, making it easier for others to follow his courageous lead in the pros and at every other level of sports.
How about it, Michael Jordan?
You’ve had your own personal struggles, but you just got remarried over the weekend in Florida in a lavish ceremony.
Your life is good. Your basketball team is bad.
Here is a great chance to make a real statement about both the tolerance and toughness of the Charlotte Bobcats.
Go out and sign Jason Collins.