In case you missed it, Jason Collins, a 35-year-old NBA veteran and graduate of Stanford University, publicly came out as gay this past summer. After spending a large part of the NBA season as a free agent, Collins was signed to a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets in late February, and in late March he was offered a contract for the rest of the season.
Sports fans and activists all over America have debated the merits of this story. How important is it? What difference does it make? Will Collins’ presence change anything about sports?
To keep things clear, Collins is not a great NBA player anymore. In fact, he never was. Not to say he’s useless — Collins is renowned for his ability to defend other centers and set effective screens. But he is also owner of what Basketball-Reference.com evaluates as the worst statistical playoff performance of all time. So this is not exactly Michael Jordan here.
Once Collins signed his contract with Brooklyn, everything he did became an ESPN article, and the talking heads on SportsCenter and First Take made sure they had a Collins segment every day: “Collins plays in first game,” “Collins’ Teammates React to Having A Gay Teammate,” “Collins has one point and three rebounds in loss,” “Collins says he’s happy to be back in league.” He held the uncomfortable position of being a media sensation who got more than he bargained for, in the vein of a Jeremy Lin or Tim Tebow.
Fans wondered aloud, why is this news? How is this a story? If he was not gay, would anyone care? He scored no points and had five fouls in eight minutes! He might be the worst player in the league. Why do I have to read articles about this guy? Why does this matter?
But here is the thing — it does not matter one bit how good Jason Collins actually is at basketball. Why does the story matter? Because there has never been a publicly gay basketball player before, or really even a publicly gay athlete in any of the four major American sports. And that is kind of a big deal, no matter your personal beliefs on the subject.
If ESPN.com had existed when Jackie Robinson began playing Major League Baseball, I suspect there would be no small amount of articles written on the subject with snarky comments on them asking if they were necessary.
But the buzz has died down. And the fact that nobody talks about Collins anymore could not make me any happier. My question is this: now that Collins is no longer a fixture on the ESPN home page, does that mean…that he got exactly what he wanted? That he is not big news, just a normal guy who happens to be gay and play in the NBA?
His job may be partially accomplished, but the process is not even close to finished. When I see Collins enter the game on my TV screen, my brain is still going to feed me the information: “Jason Collins is now in the game. He is gay.” And it is exceedingly difficult to forecast a point where that association is gone. But get this: it has to start somewhere, and someone has to be the one who puts their face out there for everyone to mock, judge and sneer at from the safety of our living rooms.
It took a huge amount of courage and sacrifice for Collins to allow himself to be the poster boy gay athlete. I cannot imagine what it must be like to live the rest of your life as “Jason Collins who is gay” rather than just “Jason Collins.”
But what Collins is doing matters, and he has no reason to be doing this unless he thinks it was worth it. It matters because somewhere out there, there is another gifted basketball player hiding a big secret. And if that athlete gets tired of living a lie and comes out, it may still be a big deal, but he will no longer be the first one that has to deal with the media circus. That may end up being Jason Collins’ biggest contribution to his peers.
By the time the 10th or 15th openly gay athlete is playing, there may no longer be articles about them signing 10-day contracts or scoring zero points or tripping over their water bottles. Jason Collins matters because he is a huge, huge step towards making gay athletes another normal part of our weird, wonderful world of sports.
This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily represent the views of Chimes, Calvin College or the Christian Reformed Church.