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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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition