*Only about 2,000 words, but I plan to revisit it sometime later.
Anyway, the big news here lately is all about Jason Collins. I’ve pretty deliberately avoided all the talk about him I could so I could give you my unadulterated take. Here’s what I know of the situation. He’s currently a free agent center, most recently with the Washington Wizards. He’s averaged just under 21 minutes a game for his career and about three and a half points a game. So, basically a career back up. He went to school at Stanford, and I can’t say I remember him whatsoever there. He has a twin brother who also played in the NBA and is not gay. Apparently he was with a woman for eight years and they were engaged. I’m not sure how long they were engaged, and I haven’t seen any mention of any children, but at least we know who his beard was.
And that is all good. Seriously, good for him. Before I go overcomplicating things as I’m sure others have by now, I’m glad he feels like he can come out and be who he truly is and the vast majority of folks are supportive of an active athlete being gay. But let’s not fall all over ourselves patting society on the back, okay?
None of this has anything to do with Jason Collins per se. My complaint here is that sports seems to be giving itself a big, shiny medal for it’s progressiveness, and I just don’t think that’s really applicable here. Sport can generally pat itself on the back when it comes to race relations. We think of the Civil Rights Era as running through the ‘60’s, the age of MLK and Malcom X, and even Muhammad Ali. What recent moviegoers might remember is Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in the ‘40’s, just a shade after World War II. I think we’re all at least somewhat familiar with his story and the struggles he faced, but it did not take long for black players to be welcomed with opened arms and the crowds at the stadiums to be just as integrated.
This was the whole point of a lecture I went to at Wabash once upon a time. It was given (not coincidentally) in the Malcom X Institute and focused on baseball and the civil rights movement. I don’t remember now who was doing the presenting, but the point was made that sports, in many ways, has been a great meritocracy. Because you fail or succeed based on easily observed abilities and outcomes, it makes it plain to see who is worthy to make the cut, and thus it has enabled sports to stay ahead of the curve in terms of social acceptance.
It’s a great theory, and one that holds up in terms of race.* While there are certainly shameful moments in sports regarding race after Robinson’s big break, generally speaking, sports have been a great equalizer in race relations. This should be applauded and recognized for what it is. In the case of sexuality, though, this has not been the case.
*Gender is a bit trickier, given the physical nature of sports, so it’s going to be ignored for now.
To put it simply, the homosexual community* has gained power and acceptance at an astounding rate in the last, what, ten years, we’ll say? I can tell you the difference in how gay students were viewed and treated my freshman year at Wabash to my senior year was night and day. ‘shOUT went from being a pariah to practically unnecessary in my four years. It seems that society as a whole has been on almost as fast a pace, if voting to allow same-sex marriage is to be believed. It was only back in 2008 that Prop 8 in California was passed. That was yet another electoral defeat for gay rights. In California, I remind you again. At that point, I don’t think a gay marriage initiative had ever passed an electorate. In this past election, if memory serves, four states passed gay-friendly propositions. That’s certainly progress, and it feels like it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
*That is a conscious choice to exclude transgender. That’s a trickier situation, socially speaking, that I don’t feel has gained nearly as much mainstream acceptance. I understand that may be a sensitive decision, but please don’t take it as a reflection of how I personally feel. Just a reflection of how I feel society views it.
So, by that measure, sports has really lagged behind. It took until the middle of 2013 for an active player to come out? And, you know, Jason Collins is not exactly Jackie Robinson. No offense to Collins, but the dude is a role player at best. Jackie Robinson was Rookie of the Year, MVP, a six-time All-Star, and a first-ballot Hall of Famer.* Collins is not. I don’t necessarily think this is a ploy to extend his career or his “brand,” but I’m sure it doesn’t hurt.
*You might argue that Jackie Robinson was pretty well guaranteed to be a Hall of Famer given what he did outside the lines, but no matter how you slice it, he had a career worthy of his position.
Maybe this is just the cynic in me creeping out. Again, I don’t mean to denigrate Collins. It’s always nerve-wracking to go first. But let’s not blow this out of proportion. The environment Collins is facing with this announcement is nothing compared to what Jackie Robinson faced inside the lines and out. I would like to think that by 2013, we’ve learned that, at least in sports, if you can play, then you can play, no matter what you look like or who you take to bed with you. And we don’t have to make a big show of the things off the court.