April 30, 2013 in Sports

Collins has necessary character

He’ll stand up to pressure and may derive some benefits
Mark Purdy San Jose Mercury News
 
Associated Press photo

Twins Jarron Collins, left, and Jason Collins made a lasting impression on columnist Mark Purdy when he got to know them during their days at Stanford.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Gay athletes

 Before Jason Collins, several notable athletes have been outed or came out themselves, though none were active in a major men’s U.S. sport at the time. Among them:

John Amaechi, NBA

Billy Bean, baseball

Brittney Griner, basketball

Billie Jean King, tennis

Greg Louganis, diving

Martina Navratilova, tennis

Anja Paerson, skiing

Robbie Rogers, soccer

Esera Tuaolo, NFL

There is a hunch I have. It might be a wishful hunch. But the hunch is, Jason Collins will find out that his choice to become the first active openly gay male player in a major American pro sport will turn out to be … not as big a deal as everyone thinks.

Within minutes of the news breaking Monday, for instance, NBA stars such as Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash sent out tweets of support for Collins’ decision. President Clinton weighed in positively. So did Mark Madsen, who was Collins’ college teammate at Stanford.

“Basketball does not define Jason Collins,” Madsen said in a statement released by the university. “His decision to come out publicly doesn’t define Jason Collins. What defines Jason, is he is a first-rate human being who made a huge contribution to this university, and every team or community he has been a part of.”

My hunch is, the vast majority of people will see it the same way. My hunch also is, Collins’ announcement will also prompt other male athletes in team sports to come out, knowing they will no longer be the first – and seeing that Collins did not spontaneously combust into a loathed ball of flame when he decided to tell the truth.

Sounds as if Collins is hoping or expecting others to follow, as well.

“If I had my way, someone else would have already done this,” Collins said in the Sports Illustrated piece, composed with writer Franz Lidz. “Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

Oh, it won’t be unanimous. It won’t be applause and cheers everywhere. Sports Illustrated had to shut down its comments section Monday because of so many cretinous (and anonymous) remarks.

Some people’s religious beliefs clash with the very notion of homosexuality. But almost every religion promotes tolerance. Gay fans cheer for straight players all the time. Why can’t straight fans cheer for gay players? Frankly, it has been that way for a while. The straight fans just didn’t know it.

Yet another hunch: Jason Collins is the perfect guy to do this, to be in this position. He is smart and he is strong. We learned about that at Stanford when Collins and his twin brother, Jarron, were members of the school’s basketball team.

During that time, I always enjoyed conversations and interviews with both. They were twins. But they weren’t the same guy.

Jason wore an earring, Jarron didn’t. I spent an hour or so with them one afternoon, working on a story about whether they might be the best twins ever to play basketball. My conclusion: They were. But the discussion varied widely into literature and movies, plus basketball philosophy. Of the two, I decided the twin that I’d least want to mess with was Jason.

“When you step on that court, nice guys finish last,” he told me. “You can’t go out there to shake hands. It’s a war. I’m ready for that.”

And then he went out and blocked five shots in an NCAA victory over Cincinnati. Collins has been the same sort of player as a pro – ready to play a physical style (he once led the NBA in fouls committed) and backing down from no one.

I suppose that fact will help break down one of the stereotypes about gay athletes – that they can’t possibly be as tough or competitive as straight ones. We should have learned the ridiculousness of that lesson long ago. Several former NFL players have come out after they left the game – the first was onetime 49ers running back Dave Kopay – and many were among the most vicious players on the field.

Collins will also have the support of the NBA behind him. David Stern, the commissioner, said the league was “proud” of Collins’ decision to take the lead in promoting a healthy and open attitude about gay issues in the sport. I presume this means that Stern will make certain no NBA team decides against signing Collins – who is a free agent for the 2013-14 season – strictly because of his homosexuality. The league has been prepared for this, in both the business and basketball areas.

Here’s why: The WNBA, the female adjunct to the NBA, has been populated by openly gay players for a long while. Sheryl Swoopes came out in 2005. Brittney Griner, the top draft pick this year from Baylor, came out earlier this month. The WNBA has handled the situation with aplomb and a shrug.

It wouldn’t surprise me, in fact, if Collins picks up some corporate endorsements because of his decision, not in spite of it. Bud Light, Wells Fargo and Hilton are just a few sponsors of San Francisco’s annual Gay Pride celebration, clearly pursuing a market segment as well as a social cause. No gay athlete should feel that coming out is mandatory. But if Collins signs an endorsement deal soon, you can bet other homosexual players (and their agents) will be thinking about following his lead.

Collins says he’s also ready for any fan heckling, which I believe. Pro athletes are heckled all the time, about everything. The locker room stuff may not be so awkward, either.

As Collins writes: “The biggest concern seems to be that gay players will behave unprofessionally . . . Believe me, I’ve taken plenty of showers in 12 seasons. My behavior wasn’t an issue before, and it won’t be one now.”

Nevertheless, Monday’s revelation is a brave move on Collins’ part – although personally, I think the bravest souls were still the gay people who came out so many years ago when society’s attitudes were so radically different. I’m thinking of my high school friend, David, who decided to reveal his gayness in 1970 during our senior year. That simply wasn’t done in the small Midwestern town where we grew up.

David did it, anyway. He didn’t have a league commissioner or sports superstars on his side, expressing support for his sexual orientation. Neither did so many others in his situation. I always admired David for his guts. I was thinking of him Monday morning.

That’s my final hunch: Jason Collins has gained at least one more fan.


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