Before reading the following, I encourage you to read Jason Collins’ first-person piece in Sports Illustrated, the article announcing the 34-year-old’s sexuality. No matter your stance on the issue, the article is incredibly well-written, insightful, and moving. Aside from such a groundbreaking announcement, Collins’ personal reflection is admirable and intelligent. The column should serve not just as a revelation in its message, but also as a lesson in self-awareness. Regardless of Collins’ status as a professional athlete, it’s absolutely clear through the strength of his voice and the content of his character that he is more than capable of being a vocal leader in the gay community. Props to Jason Collins on being a trailblazer and, in his words, starting the conversation.
Jason Collins is the first athlete in a major professional sport to come out as gay and my first reaction is not one of shock over his sexuality, but shock that he still plays in the NBA. Because in all honesty, I thought Collins had long since gone the way of Mouhamed Sene and departed for a league overseas or the sanctity of retirement. Alas, to my stunned surprise, that isn’t the case at all. In reality, Collins is still an active NBA player. Imagine that.
My reaction is just one of a litany of reactions that will be inspired by Collins’ announcement. Personally, I don’t care whether a guy is gay, straight, or what-have-you. Maybe that’s why I was more shocked to learn that Collins is still an active NBA player as opposed to a former one — my ignorance is limited to Jason Collins, NBA player, rather than Jason Collins, gay NBA player.
In general, we’re progressing as a society. The world hasn’t stopped dead in its tracks with Collins’ revelation coming to light this morning. A quick gauge of my Twitter feed shows that people are just as concerned with the likes of Tim Tebow getting cut by the Jets as they are about a gay basketball player. Maybe that says more about Tebow and the media spin cycle (thanks, ESPN) than it does our views on sexuality, but I choose to believe that this is less a show-stopping news story than it is a natural progression. We know that a statistically significant percentage of the population identifies as homosexual. In acknowledging that, we understand that in every sport there will always be gay athletes. Whether or not those athletes choose to come forth with information on their personal lives is what makes this news.
For those of us who identify as straight, there is no comprehending the weight of the decision that individuals face when coming out. We can listen and react. We can express compassion or malevolence, countenance or condemnation. But we cannot truly empathize. Being straight doesn’t require an unveiling. Being straight doesn’t cause others to reevaluate how they feel about you. Straightness is an assumption we make of just about everyone until proven otherwise. So to minimize what Collins has done on this day would be incredibly stupid.
No matter how we choose to interpret his announcement, there is no denying that a heavy dose of gravity sat upon Collins’ shoulders as this revelation was being considered. In opting to thwart secrecy and face the unexpected, Jason Collins is many things for which we only have so many descriptors: brave, heroic, a pioneer. None of these defining terms miss their mark. They are as accurate as the words we use to describe Collins’ physical traits on the basketball court: tall, strong, energetic, rugged. We all may not ooze emotion in finding out that Collins, or any athlete for that matter, is homosexual. But we should take a moment to acknowledge the magnitude of what this individual has struggled with in preparing for this announcement. It is not insignificant.
As mentioned earlier, there will be a litany of reactions inspired by Collins and his sexuality. It’s crazy to think that the life choices of one solitary individual who, as recently as yesterday mattered very little to us, now have such an amazing impact on so many. Thing is, we don’t know Jason Collins. We aren’t impacted by his actions or his life choices. He’s just another guy. He made a courageous announcement — many of us will applaud that and move on. With any luck, there will be others who hear Collins’ message and are given the courage to face similar revelations with as much aplomb.
At the same time, there are those who will be upset over this announcement, those who can’t process what this means for sports or humanity, those who are filled with intolerance for reasons that people like you and I may never fathom. Those people will always exist. Those people are the reason why this announcement is considered groundbreaking, why it’s new and important, why it’s worth a feature on the cover of Sports Illustrated. As a society, we’re lucky Jason Collins has opted to speak up so publicly. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s unfortunate that we have yet to achieve a point in our history where this is considered normal. Perhaps we’re on the way there today.
This one announcement by a journeyman center will bring out the best and the worst in us. Jason Collins was tested every day he lived a life shrouded in secrecy. He passed that test and overcame any doubts or fears he had when this decision to come out — to everyone — was made.
Now it’s our turn to be tested. We will be tested in the way we react to a guy that has averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game over the course of a 12-year pro career. From a basketball perspective, all that should matter is whether or not Collins can keep crashing the glass, putting the ball in the hoop, and setting the blistering screens that have kept him on NBA rosters since 2001. From a societal perspective, all that should matter is that Collins seems like a good dude who happens to be well-spoken and well-rounded, alike.
Can we pass this test? Let’s hope so.