By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist
It says something, nearly all of it good, that on the day a male athlete in one of the major American pro sports came as out as gay, the reaction from the NBA, fellow ballplayers and fans was almost uniformly positive.
But let’s not break an arm patting ourselves on the back just yet. There’s some heavy lifting still to be done.
Jason Collins certainly did his part. In a powerful first-person account Monday on Sports Illustrated’s website, the 34-year-old NBA backup center said he didn’t set out to knock the sports world off its axis, although he “was happy to start the conversation.” Now it’s time for the rest of us to make sure it actually goes somewhere, to put our money and our actions where our sentiments have been for some time now.
History isn’t written overnight, no matter how much attention his announcement is generating. So it’s worth remembering that Collins is hardly the first professional athlete to come out. Tennis star Martina Navratilova and Olympic diver Greg Louganis did so decades ago, former Major League Soccer and U.S. men’s national team player Robbie Rogers did the same in February and barely 10 days ago, former Baylor and future WNBA superstar Brittney Griner was so low key about it almost no one noticed.
But all of them were retired, save Griner, and because there were plenty of WNBA trailblazers already, she risked very little. The same is true for those retired athletes with nothing left to lose in their professional lives and plenty to gain in personal terms, beginning with that all-important sense of self that made them stand out in the first place. They may have changed some minds in the long run, even banked a few bucks for baring their pain, and there’s no dishonor in any of that.
But because they were no longer playing, they also did less to help sports — especially men’s sports — get over its homophobia than they might have. And brave and tough as Collins has been throughout a long and useful NBA career — a dozen seasons as a 7-foot enforcer, including nine on playoff squads and one where he led the league in personal fouls — he’s going to need help breaking down the same barrier his predecessors ultimately sidestepped.
For starters, somebody in an NBA front office has to give Collins a job next season.
He’s a free agent with plenty of miles who saw only limited playing time for the lowly Washington Wizards last season. Collins is also a big man in a league where those are in short supply, and long before former coaches and teammates were lauding him for his courage, the prevailing opinion was that no one was better prepared to step into a game than the former Stanford grad. Herb Williams, a guy that Collins is often compared to, found steady work until he was 41.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been saying for some time that he’d be “honored” to have the first active, openly gay NBA player on his team. He didn’t respond to an email Monday. But the Mavericks will be in the draft lottery this summer and along with a play-making point guard like Trey Burke of Michigan, one of their express needs is a defensive post player along the lines of Kentucky’s promising 6-11 Nerlens Noel. Who better to teach a kid like that the ropes than Collins, often praised as a “pro’s pro?”
But this isn’t solely Cuban’s fight, nor even the rest of the — generally speaking — old boys’ club that run the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL. They’ve been saying all the right things in public and preparing for this day for some time, not just because of what might be in their hearts but because of how it will affect the bottom line. Anybody who needs to be reminded of that can check out the movie “42.”
While nearly everyone knows the Jackie Robinson story, the number of folks who can name the next black major leaguer (Larry Doby) is considerably lower. Jim Buzinski, co-founder of Outsports.com, noted that out during a conversation Monday afternoon. Real progress, he said, is always incremental and judging how welcoming sports truly becomes for gay athletes can’t be measured solely by “firsts.”
“It will be a big story if he’s the first to play, because that first game will get covered like Jason’s announcement was and there will be someone to point to. And there’s so many other signs of progress already. Just for starters, how many people and athletes who used to be comfortable shouting this slur or that who are keeping their mouths shut now?
“You wouldn’t have seen that just a few years ago. I mean, when a guy like Kobe tweets he’s proud and standing behind Jason, well, how can anybody else say anything?” Buzinski added.
“But if Jason winds up not playing, the truth is it’s just a nice story. Then you have to wonder whether all those other athletes who would be encouraged and emboldened by that, by seeing him out there, will take away the opposite message if he’s not part of the game.”
Colllins’ momentum likely won’t be slowed at the top. His prospects would be better if he were, say, 25, and already an accomplished star. He’s not a must-have player, but he’s still big, skilled, motivated and enough of a “character guy” to deserve a spot on an NBA bench. His acceptance is likely to be decided at the next level, by teammates who share the locker room and by fans who fill NBA arenas at home and on the road. That’s where the rest of us come in.
Toward that end, I asked Buzinski whether it was fair to take a completely cynical view of Collins’ declaration — that maybe he was just an NBA journeyman trying to get a lot of attention and sign one last deal.
“It’s cynical, sure,” he laughed, “but in a weird way it’s a sign of progress. Think about it: Coming out a few years ago would have been a career-killer. If it’s become a way to extend a career, then we truly have reached the tipping point.
“And the good thing is that Jason did this, he wrote, because he was lonely and felt isolated, so he’s already a better, happier man than he was. And that,” he added, “is a victory either way.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/Jim Litke.