There's some big news in sports today: Tim Tebow has been cut from the New York Jets. Oh, and also this guy named Jason Collins has come out of the closet.
In a great essay written for Sports Illustrated (in conjunction with writer Frank Lidz), Collins has announced to the world his sexuality starting with these three personal descriptors: "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay." From there, the 34-year old gay, black NBA center breaks into his rationale for spilling the beans now rather than after his playing days are done. Interestingly, the free time he had during the lock-out* that preceded this season and the recent Boston bombing gave him impetus to break the news in his own words and own time.
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What does this mean? While other American athletes have come out of the closet, it's generally been a retired athlete (Wade Davis and Kwame Harris formerly of the NFL), involved in a much lower profile sport (Olympic athletes Johnny Weir and Greg Louganis) or been a woman (Billie Jean King, Sheryl Swoops and most recently Britney Griner to name a very few). But the big three America sports NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball (if we throw in the NHL for charity's sake, we may as well include professional soccer or lacrosse) have yet to have a current or particularly high-profile player publicly exit the closet. The thought has traditionally been that the macho world of professional sport wouldn't accept an openly gay player. That a locker room full of nude dudes would assume that a homosexual teammate was ogling their equipment. That if someone was gay they may be too sensitive to jock humor. That if someone could hide something so fundamental about themselves they couldn't be trusted. That fans and sponsors may shy away from the "controversy" a gay athlete may engender. Rationally, this is mostly poppycock but commentary from San Francisco 49er Chris Culliver prior to this year's Super Bowl suggests otherwise.
Where do we go from here? A basic grasp of mathematics and graphic anecdotes I've personally heard posit that there are many, many more gay men being paid so we can watch them exercise in the big three sports leagues. You'd guess that the treatment Collins receives will act as a traffic signal for their own de-closeting. Some cynics don't trust the timing of the move. As a free agent, journeyman center on the wrong side of 30, it's possible that Collins may not have had a place to play next year in any case.
The word "hero" is used entirely too much in sports (and in general). But if means someone who saves lives then Collins is a hero for the hope and solace of mind that he has given many young men and women by this incredibly brave act. I've never bought a jersey of any kind (pale arms, pear-shape) but I think I'd be proud to own his #98.
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*Note: The NBA season began late this year as the governing contract between the players and the league expired. Naturally, both sides wanted to make more money and the season's start was severely delayed.
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