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Monday, April 29, 2013

Sound and Fury

The news that NBA center Jason Collins is gay is about six hours old at this point.

This is of course a major deal in professional sports, as he is the first active male professional athlete in a major sport to come out.  There has been talk of NFL players coming out in the near future, and now that Collins has done so the way has been paved for other athletes in pro sports to do so.  The resounding outpouring of support he's gotten from the NBA community at-large is impressive and shows that the league has come a long way since the insensitive commentary of Tim Hardaway some years ago.  Collins is a widely respected player in the league, and is viewed as a locker room leader and all-around great teammate.  And you know what?  Good for him.  I can't imagine what it was like for him living a lie, having to behave like he thought professional athletes should to maintain some image.  From a human standpoint, I'm happy for the brother to have finally publicly acknowledged who he is.

And yet...

Before the Jason Collins news broke, odds are if you were asked who Jason Collins was, unless you were a hardcore hoop-head, the answer would have been "Who?"  I'm a hardcore hoop-head, and my response was, "He's still playing?"  He's been described by his own GM, right after the announcement, as a "utility big," someone who is somewhere between 11th and 15th on the depth chart.  His career averages of 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds doesn't scream "upper-echelon player."  He's played 12 years for six teams and is a free agent this year.  He's 34 years old, which in NBA terms is like 65.  To be blunt, his recent career has seen him be a bench player for a bad team.  As much of an important step as this announcement is for that community, Jason Collins has unfortunately branded himself as a "gay ballplayer" as opposed to a "ballplayer who's gay."

When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier decades ago, the concern was whether he was the "right guy--" talented enough, humble enough, respectable enough -- to legitimize the black athlete.  Jason Collins is not Jackie Robinson, at least not in the respect that he's an elite player.  He's on the downswing of a long but unremarkable career.  Collins is a Stamford educated man.  That is to say, he's not an idiot.  I'm sure as an athlete and as a businessman, he has to have come to grips with what this could mean for his career going into his free agent year.  And while I agree with Charles Barkley in that it's nobody's business who he sleeps with, putting this into the public eye makes it a public conversation, and unfortunately part of the talks in terms of continuing his career.  Big picture: it's a blip, and not because it should be a blip, but because Jason Collins isn't Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, or Dwyane Wade.

Now, I sincerely hope that this is the first step to this FINALLY not being a big deal anymore, the way being a black athlete, entertainer or executive is not a big deal anymore.  I hope that this announcement inspires an athlete of more clout to step up and embrace who he is, which in turn inspires more people to embrace who they are, and finally encourages the rest of us -- forces the rest of us -- to accept who they are.

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