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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why the Jason Collins Signing is Big News

By the time you read this, NBA player Jason Collins will have nearly completed his 10-day contract he signed with the Brooklyn Nets on February 23.  But his impact on organized sports, society as a whole and perhaps most importantly, on gay kids in the U.S. will live on, even if Collins’ contract is not renewed.
Jason Collins becomes first openly gay pro male in big 4 sports
When Collins stepped onto the Staples Center court in Los Angeles that evening, he became the first ever openly gay pro male athlete in North America’s big four sports leagues, which include the NFL, MLB, NHL and the NBA to play in a game. 
“Today Jason Collins tore open the last remaining closet in America,” Brian Ellner, a founding member of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about homophobia in sports. “This is a piece of history, an important point on the continuum toward justice and a moment to celebrate.”

Others disagree.  For some reason, they don’t recognize the significance of this landmark that frequently draws analogies to Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in 1947 with another Brooklyn team. 

When I posted a complaint on Facebook that the local TV sports reports failed to mention this breakthrough that night, I received this perplexing response: “Why is someone’s sexuality an issue anymore?”  That individual, who is a straight, supportive friend of mine, was probably thinking of what SHOULD be rather that what reality is.
Another opined that the signing was merely a “publicity stunt” in an effort for the NBA to beat the NFL for bragging rights of being the first league to have an openly gay player.  In addition, TV time was too “precious” to include the story especially since Baltimore doesn’t have a NBA team.

These are bogus arguments.  The Nets stated unequivocally they needed a defensive back-up center and Collins was available.  The sports report on WBAL-TV included the Olympics (of course), a NASCAR race, a golf tournament and a Calvert Hall-Loyola high school basketball game footage.  All well and good, but to sidestep this historic event is dubious at best.  It should be noted that WJZ also failed to mention it.
I hope the reason for not reporting the story was based on “it’s no big deal” even if that decision means blindness towards history rather than a conscious effort to exclude it because of any discomfort about the subject in the station’s sports department.  We’ll never know and I will give them the benefit of the doubt.
Yet, I won’t forget how one of the Baltimore Sun’s beat writers for the Ravens tweeted (and quickly deleted) a response to a story on LGBT advocate Brendon Ayanbadejo’s work:  “Hopefully, we have seen the end of the Brendon Ayanbedejo [sic] stories and his crusade.  Enough already.  Actually, way too much.” 

With gains for LGBT Americans happening almost routinely, one can see how folks could be suffering “gay fatigue” or shrug off an openly gay player entering the macho-centric culture of organized sports.  But that would be misguided. 
Yes, there have been some victories on the marriage front, but we’re on a treadmill on other matters.  Pressure had to be applied to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (the one who once disrespectfully poked her finger at President Obama) to veto an atrocious bill that would have codified discrimination against gays and lesbians based on nebulous religious reasons.  As obnoxious as that is a D.C. lobbyist who is seeking Congressional legislation to ban gay players from the NFL.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives continues to hold up a Senate-approved bill to end discrimination against LGBT folks in employment. Bullying against gay youth in schools and in cyberspace persists.  Globally, we’re witnessing the horrific laws enacted in Russia and Uganda.  And gays in several Middle Eastern countries face death sentences if caught.
I point these out to counter the erroneous thinking that gays are doing so well that playing a professional sport as an openly gay man is no big deal.  Barriers still remain, and for a player to overcome them, it would require courage, an even-keeled temperament, thick skin and likability.  Both Michael Sam, the heralded Mizzou pass rusher who came out prior to the upcoming NFL draft, and Jason Collins clearly possess these attributes.  And it doesn’t hurt that these two men are blessed with camera-loving good looks.

There will be more opportunities in the other sports for gay athletes to come out.  The suspected “media frenzy” following Collins’ first game did not materialize.  Sure, Michael Sam drew substantial media attention recently at the NFL Combine.  But a frenzy?  Not so much.  And as more enter the scene, less attention will follow; the novelty will have worn off.
Players throughout the Big Four leagues have publicly expressed support for a gay teammate—not all, but enough—to quell any feared backlash.  The locker room issue is a red herring; gay players are not going to do something stupid especially when their actions will be under a microscope.  Such unfounded fears surfaced during the process in repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Again, no barracks or showers-related incidents have surfaced, to my knowledge.

While the circumstances were far different nearly 70 years ago, Jackie Robinson had to endure vitriol and death threats to succeed, which opened the door to other African-American kids to realize their dreams.   Collins and Sam will be role models for gay kids.  They won’t feel alienated and will have the knowledge that the hard part had been accomplished by these two trailblazing athletes.   
That may be reason enough that this is indeed a big story.

UPDATE: Collins to be offered a second 10-day contract, which would sign him through the season.

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