Photo via Rex USA
On April 15, 1947, Major League Baseball’s first black player, Jackie Robinson, walked onto the diamond at Ebbets Field unsure what would happen next. It was a year before President Harry Truman integrated the armed forces, as Jackie’s daughter Sharon wrote in the New York Times, and everyone thought the Dodgers were insane. Jackie Robinson had good reason to worry someone might kill him.
But thank God he played. He won Rookie of the Year in his first season, MVP in 1949, hit .311 in his career, and was a six-time All-Star. His success made it harder for racist assholes to argue that blacks didn’t have a place in professional sports—or mainstream America.
Yesterday, NBA player Jason Collins became the first active professional male athlete to come out as gay. And he couldn’t be more different than Jackie Robinson.
In a personal essay published in this week’s Sports Illustrated that’s already been passed around the internet a few times, Collins describes how he screwed girls, got engaged to a woman (although even then he knew he wanted to play with nonbasketball balls, if you know what I mean), and told his relatives he was gay last year at age 33. If you’re a homo, you already knew that there were plenty of gays, both secret and open, in sports (Grindr crashed from overuse at the 2012 London Olympics, after all), but Collins’s coming out will hopefully make it harder for homophobic assholes to argue that gays don’t have any place in professional sports.
If you aren’t a diehard NBA fan and don’t have fond memories of the early 00s Nets teams Collins played for in his prime, you probably didn’t know who he was before yesterday. He’s a journeyman backup center who’s now in that bouncing-from-team-to-team-until-he-finally-gets-released stage of his career—which is all beside the point now, because Collins is gay, and being gay is a great career move in 2013.
For months, the media has predicted endorsement deals and positive attention for the first professional athlete to announce “I like penises, everyone!" Marketing strategist Bob Witeck told Bloomberg he believes a gay athlete would help corporations reach a $800-million LGBT market. Any company looking to burnish its progressive reputation can now hire Collins as a pitchman to let its customers know how gay friendly it is. That strategy will work, if this article in Slate is any indication—its author, June Thomas, who is gay, says she’s never heard Collins’s name or been to an NBA game, but now she’s a “huge fan.”
Of course, Collins has received some backlash. Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace tweeted, “All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys SMH,” in response to the news, and conservative Christian sportswriter Chris Broussard said the usual “being gay is a sin” BS on ESPN. But the vast majority of the publicity has been good—40,000 new people followed Collins on Twitter, basketball legends like Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash have offered words of encouragement, and Collins could be transitioning into a very lucrative career as an author and public speaker. “This was, to some extent, preplanned,” Jason Pinter, an author and “publishing insider,” told New York magazine. “He didn't wake up this morning and tweet it out. It wasn't a decision made without any ancillary benefits in mind. He's aware of the fact that he might not get re-signed. He's certainly setting himself up to be a great member of the community. This could give him a bit of a post-NBA career. And a noble one.”
In other words, even if no NBA team picks Collins up for next season, he has a golden career as a public homosexual ahead of him if he wants it, which shows just how different being gay in 2013 is from being black in 1947—back then, no one was talking about how much money Jackie Robinson was going to make postbaseball.
Collins’s case is also different from the many female professional athletes who came out without receiving monetary windfalls. Tennis players Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova came out in the early 80s, basketball player Sue Wicks addressed her homosexuality in 2002, and three weeks ago, Brittney Griner, the first pick in the 2013 WNBA draft, casually mentioned her homosexuality and got little media attention other than a Nike endorsement deal she probably would have received anyway, since she’s an amazing fucking player.
I’m not throwing shade at Jason Collins or trying to diminish his experiences. His decision will help male athletes at all levels, and it was probably extremely difficult for him to come out. It’s just important to remember that this is not a Jackie Robinson moment—there were many, many trailblazers who came before Collins, and their efforts have not only allowed him to announce that he’s a gay NBA player, but to achieve a new level of success by doing so. For once, a good deed is actually getting rewarded.
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