When news broke on Monday that Jason Collins was the first active athlete to come out as gay in a major sports league, there were three basic reactions on television, social media and elsewhere.
Reaction one: Overwhelming support. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, David Stern, even President Barack Obama congratulated Collins for coming out.
Reaction two: Complaints that the news is not really sports-related and thus, does not matter. A typical response goes something similar to this: “I don’t care about gay people in sports. Let’s talk about Tim Tebow getting cut from the Jets!”
Reaction three: Disapproval of Collins’ revelation. Either through passive-aggressive means, e.g. Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson saying he’d pray for Collins’ family or by expressing in more direct terms that what Collins did was wrong.
Reaction one gave me hope for Collins and other gay athletes who choose to come out in the future. To have the backing of some of the biggest names in basketball — not to mention the president of the United States — shows how far we’ve come as a country in the last 10 years alone.
Reaction two gave me pause. Beyond Collins’ admission, there’s a bigger dynamic at work. Sports have long served as the “bubble boy” of our guilty pleasures.
We watch the Trojans play football on Saturdays to unwind from school and social anxieties and forget about everything else. After the Boston Marathon bombings, the singing of the national anthem at a Bruins game showed solidarity in light of a horrific tragedy.
The arena allows people to come together in an increasingly divisive world to cheer for a common purpose. I love that about sports. But I’m not naive enough to think the social issues of the day will never matter on the basketball court or the baseball field.
Unfortunately, plenty of others appear to be that naive, which goes back to the second reaction I observed.
I’m not on a witch hunt for homophobes — most of them identified themselves as such in their responses to Bryant and others on Twitter. But there’s an underlying sense of intolerance in the forceful “who cares?” that seemed to be popping up so often over the last 48 hours.
The Supreme Court is considering two major cases regarding same-sex marriage. Rhode Island is about to be the 10th state to give same-sex couples the recognition they deserve. For the first time, we’ve had a sitting president endorse marriage equality.
And you don’t think it’s a big deal that an athlete who plays basketball in front of millions of Americans has come out as gay? Really?
I will concede this much: Jason Collins is a pretty bad NBA player.
Over spring break, my girlfriend and I got tickets to a Wizards-Lakers game at the Staples Center (I’m a Wizards fan, in case you were wondering). I was alarmed to find out in the pregame starting lineups that center Emeka Okafor was sitting out with an injury, and Collins was filling in his place. He finished with two points and four fouls in 13 minutes.
But that hardly matters here. Detractors are quick to point out that he barely leaves the bench, as if that changes something. It doesn’t. Collins could be the worst player on an NBA roster next season, and he’d arguably still be the most important.
There are an estimated nine million LGBT Americans, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA. You’re playing into silly stereotypes if you don’t think a large group of those individuals, especially children and teens involved in sports, aren’t going to look up to the guy.
Collins has paved the way for future gay athletes across the country. More than that, he’s placed himself in the middle of a national debate that we need to have.
This brings me to the third reaction I observed: those who had no qualms about expressing their distaste with Collins’ announcement.
I’m not going to go on a tangent about tolerance or homophobia. Someday, probably in a generation or two, those archaic viewpoints will die out.
What I do have a problem with is the men and women who feel they’re being attacked for their beliefs when they speak out against homosexuality.
When ESPN commentator Chris Broussard made a fool of himself on national television on Monday by essentially calling gay and heterosexual individuals who engage in pre-marital sex non-Christians, he stepped beyond the cliche “hate the sin, love the sinner” response and outright offended a large group of people.
Even worse, after he issued a surely ESPN-forced half-apology on Twitter, he posted a more personal message to his followers: “Thanks 2 all 4 your support. It’s meant a gr8t deal 2 me & helped me remain strong. Much love!”
Broussard, Tim Brando and other high-profile sports pundits who chose to weigh in with criticism aren’t heroes to some special cause like their supporters think they are. There’s a reason more than half of Americans now favor gay marriage. Broussard can pretend he’s in a persecuted minority, that he has to “remain strong” in the face of adversity.
Guess who was in that persecuted minority not even a decade ago? Supporters of the LGBT community.
The total acceptance of LGBT individuals in our society is only a matter of time. Collins deserves to be lauded as a hero and pioneer for leading the inclusion of openly gay athletes in professional sports.
Hopefully, the first time he enters a basketball game next season, he’ll be greeted with the cheers he ought to receive.
And after that, maybe, just maybe, more Americans will realize sexual orientation should never be an obstacle to becoming a professional athlete, nor should it matter when it comes to coexisting with a close-knit group of teammates.
“The Fifth Down” ran Wednesdays. To comment on this story, email Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit dailytrojan.com.