It matters that Jason Collins gets a contract for next year, I suppose, if only to end the speculation about “The First Openly Gay Male Pro Athlete In A Team Sport.”
Sounds like one of those cobbled-together Academy Award categories, doesn’t it?
The former Stanford forward, who has been an NBA player for 12 years, told his story to Sports Illustrated in his own words (though with some help from SI staffer Franz Lidz), as you would guess a person of his intellect would. It was a perfectly reasoned, logical and sensible approach to the issue, as you also knew it would be.
[RELATED: NBA center Jason Collins comes out as gay]
But he is a free agent, with 12 years of mileage, and if he isn’t picked up by someone, he will be, technically I suppose, just another gay male pro athlete who played a team sport.
And I’m here to tell you that it makes no difference, for several compelling reasons.
1. He is happy now, or at least content. Comfortable in his own skin and in how he deals with others, openly and without fear. That ought to be worth a championship ring in and of itself.
2. He wrote about how his aunt, a judge, said when he told her, “I’ve always known you were gay.” This can be extrapolated to include at least some of his teammates over his odyssey through New Jersey, Memphis, Minnesota, Atlanta, Boston and Washington, which means he was known to many of them as a gay athlete. And you know what we heard about it? Nothing. It was not a big enough deal to any of his teammates, or likely to the six teams who employed him, to make it an issue. This negates all fears of how a person’s sexuality will affect his teammates. We have more than a decade’s worth of proof right here.
3. The matter of who the FOGMPAIATS is a curiosity to us. We count firsts, better than we count most importants, because we prefer data to nuance. We are all sabermetricians when the choice is humanity. It’s easier for pigeonholing purposes that way. If Jason Collins is the one, then he’s the one. If he doesn’t hook on with another team, then he isn’t. And it doesn’t matter either way.
4. Let me repeat that. It doesn’t. Matter. Either. Way.
Collins may pry the door open a bit more by coming out now, and good on him for that. But the door has been off its hinges for awhile now, and even if we don’t know the exact who, we’ve known that there are already a number of gay athletes, none of whom have ever been aggressively been mistreated by his teammates. John Amaechi, a former NBA player, has said he perceived an ongoing issue with his coach in Utah, Jerry Sloan, but that is the only recorded instance.
This who’s-the-first-to-be-active-and-out curiosity is a hurdle that frankly is more important to us than it is to the people involved. We want to know who crossed the finish line first, but in this case it has been crossed many times, because the “out” part has two components:
1. People knowing.
2. The athlete comfortable saying it out loud.
Indeed, when Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com wrote that he was aware of an NFL player ready to come out, he wrote that the player’s biggest concern was not teammates, but some lone crackpot on the outside. Collins presumably has the same concerns; he wrote that his maternal grandmother, who came through the cauldron of segregation-turned-to-integration told him so. And he knows it won’t be easy, even though his timing couldn’t be better.
“I'm glad I'm coming out in 2013 rather than 2003,” he wrote. “The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted. And yet we still have so much farther to go. Everyone is terrified of the unknown, but most of us don't want to return to a time when minorities were openly discriminated against. I'm impressed with the straight pro athletes who have spoken up so far -- Chris Kluwe, Brendon Ayanbadejo. The more people who speak out, the better, gay or straight.”
But he also said he has never come out to a teammate before, and isn’t sure what the result will be.
“The simple answer is, I have no idea,” he wrote. “I'm a pragmatist. I hope for the best, but plan for the worst. The biggest concern seems to be that gay players will behave unprofessionally in the locker room. Believe me, I've taken plenty of showers in 12 seasons. My behavior wasn't an issue before, and it won't be one now. My conduct won't change. I still abide by the adage, ‘What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room.’ I'm still a model of discretion.
“As far as the reaction of fans, I don't mind if they heckle me. I've been booed before. There have been times when I've wanted to boo myself. But a lot of ill feelings can be cured by winning.”
Exactly. To localize this fact, if Stephen Curry were gay, every shot he took in the third quarter Sunday night still went in. You can check the box score.
But maybe the most important thing Collins wrote was this:
“I'm a veteran, and I've earned the right to be heard. I'll lead by example and show that gay players are no different from straight ones. I'm not the loudest person in the room, but I'll speak up when something isn't right. And try to make everyone laugh.”
In other words, he will be a human being first, as we all are, or should be. He hopes “fans will respect me for raising my hand,” when in truth, those who don’t, don’t matter. Jason Collins may be the first active player to come out, or he may not. The truth remains that this is only the weakest of technicalities. What he actually did was move the ball forward, for himself, his family, his loved ones, and his contemporaries. That is infinitely more important than whether he ends up being the winner of the trivia question sweepstakes.