Jason Collins: “I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay."

The media storm surrounding NBA centre Jason Collins coming out shows the sporting world is ready to hear what he has to say.

 

Jason Collins got straight to the point. “I'm a 34-year-old NBA center,” ran the opening line of his article for Sports Illustrated. “I'm black. And I'm gay.”

Those three simple sentences sparked a national conversation. Across the United States, TV news crews scrambled to find guests who could speak on the subjects of sexuality and sport. ESPN devoted an hour-long episode of Outside The Lines to discussing the basketball player’s words. Collins was booked to appear on Tuesday’s edition of the popular ABC breakfast show Good Morning America.

He would prefer it not to be this way. Collins would love to live in a world where his sexuality did not matter to other people, where he could get on with living his life as he saw fit. But he knew that could never be the case. As the first-ever athlete to come out publically as gay while still active in one of America’s four major sports leagues, he would inevitably be thrust into the role of spokesman and pioneer.

Collins did not relish that position, but he knew it was a necessary one. “I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I'm different’,” he continued in Sports Illustrated. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand.”

Within minutes of the article being published online, messages of support began to flood in. “Proud of @jasoncollins34,” tweeted the LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant. “Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others.” The NBA’s commissioner, David Stern, thanked Collins for “assuming the leadership mantle on this very important issue”.

A few hours later, Collins was reported to have received a personal phone call from Barack Obama, who praised the player for his courage. The former president Bill Clinton released a statement defining this as an “important moment” for the equal rights campaign, while his daughter Chelsea – who studied with Collins at Stanford – offered further encouragement on Twitter.

Such positive responses did not tell the full story, however. The evidence from elsewhere suggested that the path ahead for Collins and other gay players would not be an easy one.

Discussing the topic on Outside the Lines, Chris Broussard – a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine – said he had spoken to players who felt uncomfortable about sharing a shower or a locker room with a gay team-mate. A similar sentiment had been expressed by an NFL player, Chris Culliver, in the build-up to this year’s Super Bowl.

Broussard said no team would reject Collins on the basis of his sexuality, but suggested that some might favour another player if there was not much to choose between the two. If true, then Collins could already have played his last game. At 34 years old, he is out of contract and will be seeking a new team when free agency begins in July. Even before this announcement, there was no guarantee of him finding one.

The fear among Collins’s supporters is that any failure on his part could put other gay players off speaking honestly about their sexuality in the future. On the other hand, it is possible that a strong enough message has already been sent. If Collins’s article drew unprecedented coverage on Monday it was not only because he happened to be an active player but also because the sporting world was ready to hear what he had to say.

Rumours that at least one leading American sportsman was preparing to come out had been swirling around for months. The former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, an outspoken advocate of equal rights, had even claimed that four NFL players were preparing to do so together through a jointly-published announcement.

As the Supreme Court deliberated on the topic of equal marriage, influential figures from both inside and outside the world of sport insisted that the time was right for new role models to step forward. In a piece for Grantland, Wesley Morris observed that: “the media is conducting a comical stakeout of closet doors across all professional sports.” 

And yet it was against this same backdrop that another basketball player, Brittney Griner, managed to tell the world that she was gay without creating too much of a splash. Perhaps that was down to the manner in which she went public, Griner casually referring to herself as “out” during a brief media appearance alongside two other players.

More likely it was because of her gender. Women’s basketball is nothing like as big a draw for supporters as the men’s equivalent, even if Griner – touted by some as the greatest-ever female prospect – does enjoy a respectable personal following.

And then there is the influence of straightforward stereotyping, the kind which presumes all gay men to be effeminate and gay women to be butch. It is precisely such flawed expectations which have allowed some male athletes and coaches to convince themselves in the past that gay players simply did not exist in their sports.

Jason Collins has now shown them otherwise. He is not really the first, but he might just be the one who makes America take notice.

Jason Collins playing for the Boston Celtics in November 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.