Today it ceases being about Jason Collins. It’s about the NBA and its players, specifically about the team that signs the first active player in a major North American team sport to announce that he is gay.
The guess here is Collins’s peers will be accepting and understanding because they have no choice. They have been put on notice. Not as much as if Collins was a big-name player logging 35-40 minutes a night on the court and winning awards and selling sneakers and sports drinks and going to All-Star Games – truth is, Collins is a 34-year-old free agent who isn’t guaranteed a contract. But if he is back in uniform, then he becomes a daily reminder of a discussion that until now has mostly occurred at the edges. This could be the accounting that gay advocacy groups have long craved, when everybody’s cards are played. You said you’d stand with an openly gay athlete while he was still in the game? Nice – now prove it.
The support on Twitter was impressive following Monday’s publication of Collins’s astounding personal essay, which is the cover story in the May 6 edition of Sports Illustrated, and included many of the league’s big names, such as Kobe Bryant, as well as politicians and athletes from other sports. The Boston Red Sox’s public Twitter account offered Collins the chance to throw out the first pitch at a game any time he wants. For some, these will be seen as little more than nice gestures – no-brainer attempts to score public relations points. Those harbouring that sentiment need to read Collins’s essay: it is as much about a struggle for self-discovery and the perception of masculinity. It asks questions, and is far from self-serving.
Think about what happened on our public broadcaster on Saturday night, when Don Cherry used his Coach’s Corner platform to decry equal locker-room access for male and female reporters. Read some of the comments on Twitter; read some of the poison in the comments section of various newspapers that covered the story. You can imagine the reaction to Collins’s story will include several questions about ‘How comfortable would you be showering or dressing next to a gay guy?’ That’s because there is an out-dated perception about what goes on in locker rooms, that they are seas of flesh where nude men walk around snapping towels at each other.
With the exception of outdated facilities or jury-rigged settings – think the visitors dressing room used for the visiting NFL team at the Rogers Centre – most locker rooms are so large and luxuriously appointed (with separate public and private areas) that nudity is brief. Indeed, people would be surprised at the modesty and ease of operation in professional dressing rooms. The truth is there is very little about locker-rooms that scream ‘sex.’ They are places of business and social interaction. Nothing more.
Does that mean that every pro athlete would be comfortable with an openly gay teammate? My guess is more comfortable than some of us would be if a family member came out. Athletes are among the most conservative people in society; they’ve made a lot of money doing something one way, so why would they want the rules changed? But they are also among the most adaptable. For all of the poison Jackie Robinson faced, Major League Baseball integrated faster than society in general. This time pro sport is playing catch-up to wider society, and when it comes to accommodating Collins and the gay athletes who come after him? I have faith it will be up to the task; that, because of Collins, another athlete will feel comfortable if he or she decides it’s important to come out; that another channel has been opened.
Monday was a good day for inclusion, I think. A very good day.