A Star Is Born

Jason Collins spent the first half of the 2012-13 NBA season playing for my beloved Boston Celtics. He was not a player I particularly cared for even though I know he was a good locker room presence and someone who always gave their all, using his somewhat limited talents to do what he could for the team when on the floor.

A decade ago when he was the starting centre for Jason Kidd’s back to back Finals bound New Jersey Nets, I and others often joked about him being the worst starting centre in Finals history. He played solid defence and always knew his role in the team, but he was never going to be a player you could give the ball to in the paint to get you a bucket.

Today however, Jason Collins is a superstar. In fact, Jason Collins is one of the most important players in NBA history and even American sporting history. You see, if you haven’t read the news yet, Jason Collins just came out as gay in an article he wrote for Sports Illustrated.

The article itself was beautifully written, articulate and basically everything you could hope for from the outing of the first openly gay active athlete in America’s “Big 4” sports of the NBA, MLB, NFL or NHL. It is not the first time a player from those sports has come out, but it is the first time a current one has and the difference between it happening in retirement or during their active career is huge.

When an athlete comes out in their retirement it means they never have to deal with any potential backlash that could await them as they take the field or court or ice the next time they compete. It is unfortunate that there would be any backlash, but there are players, administrators and fans that simply won’t be all that approving or understanding. They may be a minority, but a minority can still be hurtful as well as potentially making the life and career difficult for the athlete coming out.

Also, when an athlete waits until retirement to admit their sexuality, it always raises questions about just how necessary it was to wait. Is life going to be that difficult for an athlete who comes out during their career? Had John Amaechi come out as gay when he was still playing, would he have found himself out of a job? Or is it simply a matter of era and timing so the backlash that may face Collins in 2013 will be significantly less than if Amaechi had come out prior to his retirement a decade ago?

I would like to think that the reaction even a decade ago would have been surprisingly positive, but honestly I think a lot has changed in the last decade, both in society and in the locker room. Now is the right time for this day to have arrived and Jason Collins should be applauded for being the pioneer that he is. Whilst Collins will deal with a lot of ignorant bigots, including the likes of ESPN’s Chris Broussard, the support and adulation he receives will hopefully make this a positive experience for him and encourage more and more gay athletes to speak up.

Some people will wonder why this matters at all. If we truly lived in a world where sexuality was no one’s business but your own, why does it matter if an athlete is gay or straight? But I think we are unfortunately years away from that point. As Celtics play-by-play announcer Sean Grande tweeted ‘Proud to have worked with Jason Collins this year, great guy. Will be prouder when this issue becomes less “who is?” and more “who cares?”’

One day it will be a matter of ‘who cares?’ but to get to that point we need pioneers like Jason Collins. Athletes, as much as some hate it, are role models to millions of people around the world and there is a history of athletes being at the forefront of civil rights. Athletes like Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell played an important role in the civil rights movement and Jason Collins can now truly be discussed in the same conversation.

Athletes play a real role is shaping society, culture and public opinion. As more and more athletes come out about their sexuality, it will encourage more and more young people to do the same as well as influencing other people to be accepting of those coming out.

Here in Australia of course we have already had a famous active footballer come out, when Ian Roberts announced his sexuality in 1995. Roberts received a very supportive response from the football community and played another few years, always regarded as one of the toughest players in the league.

Had he have done this during the social media era we live in today, Roberts would have been a massive story around the world. It’s a shame Roberts is only known locally as what he did, especially as a higher profile star of his sport, may have encouraged this to occur sooner in the US as well.

Of course the US is a very different beast to Australia and they needed to get to this point in their own time. Collins will now be watched closely by other athletes considering coming out to see what impact it has on his life and career. It’s possible this news will not only be positive for him in terms of the statement he made, but maybe even in terms of his fame and even sponsorship income.

I think you’ll find numerous companies wanting to tie their brand in with an openly gay athlete and hopefully Collins get financial benefits out of this announcement along with all the other benefits. It is opportunities like that which will really encourage other athletes to come out themselves as they will not only not lose career opportunities, but in fact could gain even more. Long term, the sponsoring of gay athletes because they are gay will subside as the issue of being gay becomes less of a talking point. But as we currently live in the world Sean Grande described of ‘who is’ rather than ‘who cares’ the gay athletes should be able to capitalise on these opportunities as much as they can.

Jason Collins opened the closet door today and I hope he is the first of many to walk through it.

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