I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay. And with that, Jason Collins provided us with the lede of the year, and one of the most significant sports stories of the year as well.
It's been interesting to watch the media coverage of Collins' coming out this week. The coverage seemed to hit all the right notes, and reaction to it has been, from what I can tell, very positive. It's interesting to me how quickly this story has fallen off our radar - it went from the big story on Monday to almost no mention by Thursday. It's odd, given how monumental it felt on Monday, that people aren't really talking about it just a few days later. But maybe that's the ultimate sign of progress.
The one problem with SI's handling of the story is the headline: The Gay Athlete. Jason Collins isn't the only gay athlete. He's not even, to use the wonderfully tortured phrase of Monday, the only active gay athlete in the four major professional sports (aka only active male gay athlete). There are other gay athletes. There just are. Framing the story as "The Gay Athlete" makes Collins look like even more of an outlier.
But ESPN's coverage ... yeah, that's been fun. First, it took them more than two hours to even acknowledge Collins' announcement on Monday, and even after, it was the SECOND lead story on their ticker (behind, of course, Tim Tebow.) And later that day, on OTL, Chris Broussard launched into an anti-gay rant.*
(*-His line, "I don't agree with homosexuality." cracked me up. Like that matters?)
John Koblin on Deadspin did a masterful job breaking down Broussard's comments and how ESPN's asinine "Embrace Debate" mantra led to them. Seriously, read Koblin's piece. It's wonderful.
What's so disappointing about the "Embrace Debate" mantra is that it leaves no room for subtlety. It leaves no room for conversations. Debate implies that an argument, a fight over who is right. A conversation is a discussion, an exchange of ideas.
A conversation is what's in order on this story. And beyond the "is being gay OK?" nonsense, and even beyond the obvious questions of "how will this play in a locker room?", there are ao many more interesting questions to discuss here:
- What is the role of gender in this story? The obvious mistake too many people made on Monday was saying Collins was "the first openly gay athlete." Not even close. There are women who have coming out for literally 30+ years.Billie Jean King came out decades ago, as did Martina Navratilova. Britney Griner came out in April, and did so in such a nonchalant way that no one noticed. Is this disconnect due to the macho culture of men's sports? Is that that many people (aka men) just assume that women athletes are all lesbians?
- This story is rightly a big deal. Collins should be applauded for coming out. It is a brave move. But looking big picture, how big a deal is it? Remember John Amaechi? Bet you, like friend of the blog Matt Zimmerman pointed out, had to google him. How much social impact will having a 34-year-old reserve player at the end of his career come out? Will the greater impact come when it's a star, in his prime? Or even before his prime (in college)?
- What impact does the Jackie Robinson story have on our understanding and expectations of this story?
I've heard and read it said before that this story is looking for its Jackie Robinson, its player to break the barrier. I've thought that before myself. But I wonder if that mindset, if that story line, isn't misplaced. For one thing, Robinson was a young player, at the start of what would be a hall-of-fame career. His crossing the color line in baseball was an incredibly important symbolic moment that addressed what remains our Original Sin.
But more importantly ... Robinson's debut came in 1947, when segregation was still legal. Not just practiced, not just endorsed. Legal. The supreme law of the land. He debuted seven years BEFORE Brown v. Board of Education. This is one of the cases when sports was ahead of society on the curve. But now, sports is behind the curve in terms of gay rights and acceptance of gays.
But also, waiting for Robinson - a legendary figure in every way - diminishes what Collins did. Charlie Pierce, of course, said it best: He's not our symbol. He's not a conduit for us to show how tolerant we are and how great sports is for being so tolerant. He's a man, who should be able to live his life how he sees fit.
Which is the true victory of this week's story.