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
Photo: Getty
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Tory arguments about public sector pay are misguided and divisive

The only oppositions that matter are between capital and labour, and between top executives and everybody else.

Is Philip Hammond right? Are public sector workers better paid than workers in the private sector who hold equivalent qualifications? Yes, if we believe the Office for National Statistics and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Yet the calculations do not take into account the private sector’s bonuses (though most private sector workers never have bonuses) or the public sector’s considerably better pension rights. And if you try to take account of the burdens imposed by staffing cuts (probably greater in the public sector), you will get a headache.

The calculations are further complicated by the increasingly blurred lines between the sectors. The main point of privatisation and outsourcing, regardless of waffle about “efficiencies”, is to cut wages for ordinary workers while boosting them for the boss class. It would be surprising if this project hadn’t achieved some success, though train drivers, reportedly singled out by Hammond as “ludicrously overpaid”, are unambiguously in the private sector.

The Tories contrive such arguments to divide those who are justly aggrieved by low wages. Public v private, migrants v true-born Britons, women v men, graduates v non-graduates, train drivers v less skilled workers. The only oppositions that matter are between capital and labour, and between top executives and everybody else. Hammond cannot expect nurses and teachers to accept stagnant wages just because wages for office workers and delivery people have stagnated at a lower level.

First class

For years, everyone complained that young people didn’t bother to vote. Now, they are accused of voting too much. The Electoral Commission’s report on last month’s general election, while noting “lack of evidence of widespread abuse”, says it takes “very seriously” boasts by people on social media that they voted twice. Tory MPs and defeated candidates are also taking this seriously, with students the alleged culprits.

Electoral law allows people to register in two locations if they have two residences. Students, therefore, can register at their family home and their term-time abode. In local elections, they can vote in both locations, provided different councils are involved. In general elections, they can vote only once. It is all very confusing and, theoretically, wide open to abuse. But think of the practicalities. To influence results significantly, a voter needs to have residences in two marginal constituencies and to have time, energy, money and organisation to travel from one to the other in a day. Does that sound like any student you know?

Austerity blues

Several weeks ago, I drew attention to falling life expectancy in the US and France. Now the leading epidemiologist Michael Marmot finds that increases in British life expectancy – uninterrupted since the Second World War – are “pretty close to having ground to a halt” since 2010. Marmot says it is “entirely possible” that austerity has played a role. He offers no analysis of which sections of the population are most affected but you need only read the Times’s death notices to know that top people rarely die before their nineties. I hope Labour will use this open goal.

Sex degrees of separation

Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s spin doctor, may have other things on his mind, however. To the excitement of the tabloid press, he was recently photographed embracing a young blonde lawyer not his wife. Hacks unearthed the woman’s “links” to Julian Assange, whom she once represented (no impropriety alleged), and to her close friend Amal Clooney (ditto), the human rights lawyer married to George Clooney.

In London, where the political, media, arts and legal establishments are closely entwined, it is always possible to find such “links”. When I edited the Independent on Sunday, I entertained my boss David Montgomery, the Mirror Group’s chief executive, by drawing circles of relationships between leading upmarket media figures. These showed that, if you started with A, who had slept with B, who had slept with C, and so on, you could usually get back to A in about six steps. Montgomery was so thrilled that he summoned the editors of Mirror Group tabloids to admire this product of a broadsheet editor’s intellect.

Mail pattern weirdness

The Daily Mail is outraged that the new Doctor Who will be female. Male heroes, it screams, are “disappearing from the box”. Its TV critic complains that, “in almost every new British drama, men are relegated to sidekick status or else cast as moral weaklings”. Doctor Who has been ruined by lesbianism and “transgender politics”. BBC executives are “wrecking their own Saturday night mainstay to demonstrate how right-on they are”.

I worry about the Mail. Since Theresa May’s disastrous election performance – the Mail backed her more emphatically than it backed even Margaret Thatcher – it has become increasingly deranged. A few weeks ago, it blamed her failure to woo voters on the influence of “headmasters”. Paul Dacre, the editor, celebrates 25 years in the chair this year. Is it time for the proprietor, Lord Rothermere, to suggest that Dacre retires to his 17,000-acre estate in the Scottish Highlands where there is excellent shooting and deerstalking to be had?

Over the top

The England cricket coach Trevor Bayliss said earlier this year: “This is an entertainment business. If you are not entertaining, people don’t turn up.” Indeed. Under him, the team has developed the habit of losing a Test match by a large margin immediately after winning one. It has just done it once more against South Africa at Trent Bridge in Nottingham. And nobody can deny that, with two matches to play, a Test series squared at 1-1 promises more entertainment and more spectators than would a series in which England led 2-0. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder