Jason Collins Isn’t the Gay Jackie Robinson

But he still deserves credit for having the balls to come out in the NBA.

He’s here. He’s queer. He’s seven feet tall.

You got a problem with that?

Jason Collins, who until yesterday was a little-known journeyman in the NBA, has suddenly become the most famous jock in the world. More precisely, the most famous gay jock.

Collins, currently with the Washington Wizards, announces in the cover story of Sports Illustrated‘s May 6th issue, that yes, he is a gay American. By doing so, he is the first openly homosexual, active male athlete in a major U.S. pro sport. Ever.

Despite the country’s increasing acceptance of gays, Collins’ move took real, well, balls.

Occasional lip service notwithstanding, pro sports in general—and the NBA in particular—are a bastion of testosterone-driven heterosexism. What makes the NBA unique is that almost 80 percent of the players are black, and black men are notorious homophobes when it comes to one of their own.

That point may be moot, however, given Collins’ current status as a free agent. If he’s not picked up by another team this summer, his NBA career is over. At 34, he’s not exactly a prime pick. Washington was his sixth stop in a rather lackluster 12-year career dominated by his penchant for personal fouls.

Cynics argue that Collins timed his announcement so he can vilify the NBA and become a gay martyr if he doesn’t latch on to another team. Also, with the season over for the Wizards, he doesn’t have to worry about his teammates’ reactions in the locker room.

If Collins does pull the homophobia card, shame on him. But based on his first-person account in SI, I’m choosing to believe that his motives had more to do with his soul than his bank account.

A former Boston Celtic, he plans to march in this year’s Gay Pride parade in Boston with Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III, his roommate at Stanford. The Boston Marathon bombings convinced him that he shouldn’t wait for the “perfect circumstances” to come out.

Also, he wore the uniform number 98 with the Celtics and Wizards this season to commemorate 1998, the year that gay student Matthew Shepard was murdered in a hate crime that galvanized the whole country.

FYI, Collins is one of only two players to have worn 98 in the history of the NBA, according to basketball-reference.com. The only other: Hamed Haddadi of the Phoenix Suns, also this season.

Some are hailing Collins as the gay Jackie Robinson, but the comparison is specious. Robinson was 28 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color line in major league baseball. Blessed with prodigious talent, he was a lock for the Hall of Fame.

Collins is close to the end of his career, if it hasn’t ended already, and he is not a star. Like Robinson, however, he deserves accolades for blasting through the oldest barrier in pro sports—far older than that of color. If Collins does nothing else in his life, he will be forever remembered for that.

Ultimately, the cultural litmus test will be whether Collins’ actions have the power to affect an entire league, as Robinson’s did. Sadly, I think not.

It will take a star of Robinson’s magnitude to produce that kind of tectonic change. Someone so good, so well known, so universally admired that no one would dare comment on his sexual orientation—home-team fans because they want to keep him; competitors’ fans because they want to steal him.

Moreover, that player most likely will have to already be out before he breaks into the bigs. With his sexuality already known, there would be no waves to break. It would just be another entry in his personal stats, like his batting average or ERA.

So thank you, Jason Collins, for bravely opening the door. You may not be the gay Jackie Robinson, but you’ve made it safe for the player who will be.

  • vceross

    Smart, thoughtful, informative and . . . sensitive. Bravo, Shister!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1082232512 Heidi J. Ehrenreich

    great

  • http://www.kendaatlarge.com/ kenda

    Black men are notorious homophobes? How exactly do you quantify that?

    • AL FM

      It’s in the Poor Bigots Almanac right under “Lesbians are despicable racists.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/nicky.massi Nicky Massi

    Okay, Jason Collins is gay… Whoopity friggin dee! The man plays sports..He’s a GOOD LOOKING black man(I’m a white female)who is following the lesser known beaten path of SELF INTEGRITY that Martina Nat. took when SHE came out as a lesbian. SO what!!! I don’t get how the world is in an uproar over Mr. Collins’ coming out… It doesn’t change who he is and it certainly doesn’t change the way he plays the sport or acts w/his teammates. As a straight female, I say !BRAVO! to Jason Collins for having the BALLS to be truthful about himself an his orientation which (IS NOBODYS BUSINESS BUT HIS)people like MIKE WALLACE(Complete DEUCHE BAG and uneducated MORON!)are taking out of proportion! Now THERE is a black guy who Id rather see EGGED, tomatoed and feathered for being just like the local politicians in this this country-PREDJUDICED, UNEDUCATED and COMPLETELY F***ED up in the head! Jason Collins has MY respect and admiration!

  • cohen gamboa

    That point may be moot? What point? What facts do you have to give that prove black males are NOTORIOUS HOMOPHOBES? I’m calling you out as a black male who isn’t homophobic. You are being extremely irresponsible to your readers by marginalizing black males they way you are. Shame on you and the Philly mag for half-baked journalism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1384316579 Byron C Mayes

    Gotta agree with Kenda and Cohen. Where do you get this “fact” that Black males are “notorious homophobes?” All the Black males in your close circle of friends? Seriously, I’m assuming you have a significant number of Black males in your circle of friends. Have you even asked them what *they* think?

    You really should think about what your thought process was there.