Murph's Turf: Collins provides inspiration and precursor
Sometimes there is a disconnect between a story’s popularity and its wow factor. Massive Web hits and page views and (back in the day) sold out print copies can indicate significant interest and yet not send people calling, texting or (back in the day) running next door to tell others the news.
The Jason Collins story was one of those.
When Collins became the first male athlete playing a major American team sport to announce he was gay — via a first-person article in Sports Illustrated back in April — the story quickly surfaced and surged on every media format and across nearly all genres. This wasn’t just a sports story, but also an entertainment, civics, politics and news-talk story. What it wasn’t was a story with a “did you hear?” or “can you believe?” element attached.
One explanation for that subdued reaction is progress. As various national polls and surveys have revealed, Americans are far more tolerant of the LGBT community: Over the past decade, the percentage of those supporting same-sex marriage has overtaken the percentage of those opposing the concept. Compared to the usually sloth-moving pace of such shifts, this turnaround is the Usain Bolt of policy issues. Fast. Startlingly fast.
Another reason is familiarity. Many Americans now have either family members, relatives, friends or co-workers who are openly gay or lesbian; several well-known female athletes have previously disclosed they were lesbians; and male athletes in non-major American sports, or those retired from a major American sport (former NBA player John Amaechi), have said they are gay. So is it shocking that a male athlete currently playing a major American sport is gay? Hardly. For a while now, this moment had moved from an if to a when.
A third factor in the absence of oomph was notoriety. Jason Collins is a 34-year-old professional basketball player near, or possibly at (he becomes a free agent July 1), the end of his career. During that career, Collins has been regarded as a solid role player but never a star. A household name he was not.
Although the notion of Collins as hero for his announcement is lessened by current societal views — his disclosure would have taken more courage just 10 or 15 years ago — he can still be regarded as an inspiration for closeted younger athletes. But whether Collins’ lead will encourage high school athletes to feel more comfortable discussing their sexuality may be a matter of how schools address gay rights.
In an article last month in the Los Angeles Times, students at Harvard-Westlake, a private school that Collins attended, and which, according to the story, has an active gay-straight alliance, heaped praise on Collins. “We have a lot of pride in him,” said one student. “He’s a hero, an icon for what he has done.”
At Susan Miller Dorsey, an inner-city public school with no gay-straight alliance, the reaction to Collins’ announcement was more mixed. “Sure, it’s a sign of progress,” said one student at the school. “But is he an icon? Nah. Not to us.”
With surveys showing more than 70% of millennials (those born after 1980) supporting gay marriage, the climate should only become more accepting for younger athletes who may have remained closeted in the past, when high school male locker rooms operated as a macho reservoir of anti-gay remarks and slurs.
But the biggest breakthrough in this country will come when a male athlete in a major American sport says he is gay and that person is an All-Star caliber talent at the height of his career. Collins is not that player, but he has made the path more navigable for the player who is.