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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser