So, NBA journeyman Jason Collins is gay. Do you care? Many would say no, but for very different reasons.
One variety of not caring is apathetic. Maybe you aren’t interested in sports. Maybe it was driven by never having heard of Jason Collins previously. Maybe it won’t change your view of Collins as a basketballer one iota.
Or perhaps you think we live in a post-homophobic world, much like we live in a post-racial world now that Barack Obama has been President twice.
In those circumstances, not caring about the coming out of a player in the NBA is reasonably understandable. In that case of the post-homophobic world argument, you’d be wrong, but its hardly a crime to be idealistic.
Another type of not caring has been identified by Slate columnist Josh Levin. Not caring, aggressively. A metaphorical equivalent of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that used to be the official method of suppressing homosexuality in the U.S military.
This is not the first time a professional sportsman has come out as gay. Also, as Samir Chopra has pointed out before, this also isn’t an uncommon event in women’s professional sport. In that cases too, there are many problematic issues in the subsequent coverage.
When a male athlete comes out, it defines them. They are the token representative of homosexuality in their entire sports in some cases, and it shows in the way their comings out are talked about. As such, opening up about their homosexuality is very rarely discussed in the terms described above.
Perhaps it is a cultural difference between Britain and the USA, but the British have recently been very vocal in their support of gay males in sport. See, for example, the facebook page set up to support Gareth Thomas. It has 27,000 likes, no insignificant number and reflective of some acceptance of gay males in rugby, even if the number of players who are ‘out’ remains tiny. What it certainly isn’t though is apathetic.
Now Collins is the token representative in basketball. To a degree the reaction to his coming out has been positive. Many other players have tweeted their support, columns have been written hailing his bravery, Sports Illustrated put him on the cover.
The United States is very much a closed society in terms of their media and social politics, so it is natural that much of the interest has focused on the fact that Collins is the first male (American) athlete in a major (American) sport to come out.
A strange article in the Atlantic confirms this. With the provocative headline
“Actually, Jason Collins Isn’t the First Openly Gay Man in a Major Pro Sport”
an article is then devoted to an obscure baseball player from the 70s. Of course, Justin Fashanu, Steven Davies and Gareth Thomas aren’t mentioned. Being the USA there is also the cultural undercurrent of religious conservatism, which makes LGBT victories all the more hard-won.
There is also the matter of Collins being black in a nation where black people typically face the worst socio-economic conditions. He is now a role model for more than gay sportsmen, he has been identified as a representative and inspiration for black LGBT activists.
There has been some backlash, but it has been of a strangely dog-whistled nature. DADT has been echoed, by Rush Limbaugh, though in his case it was more an attempt to use a cloak of family values to silence Collins’ announcement.
The official ‘homophobic douche’ archetype has been filled, but not by someone who said anything particularly bigoted. Mike Wallace, from the NFL, sent a mildly offensive tweet expressing a strong sexual preference for women over men. he then sent another clarifying that he doesn’t want to bash anyone, he is just ignorant.
And perhaps this is one of the major problems in the American context. People are more than happy remaining ignorant about things that don’t directly affect them. There is a disconnect between LGBT supporters in the media, who see events such as this as incredibly significant, and those who wish to discourage any coverage of LGBT issues ever. I know which side’s aims I am more sympathetic to, but it is undeniable that neither of the entrenched sides can ever hope to understand the other’s thinking.
Then in the middle there are many who simply, genuinely and without malice, do not care. It won’t change how they view Collins as a basketballer. It might change how they view him as a person, not in any negative way, but as a piece of the larger picture of his personality. Most likely though there will be many who will always just see Collins as a mid-level player who gets traded a lot, perhaps a reasonable option for a bench pick in their fantasy basketball team.
For that group, it really is okay to consider the on court actions of a player public property, and for their private life to remain private. While this may be an old fashioned way of looking at public figures, it isn’t inherently negative or offensive, and people should be entitled to think that.
In my view though, and I’ve written a lot about this, it is impossible to create some artificial separation between ‘sports’ and ‘the world.’ Jason Collins matters not necessarily because he is the first sportsman to come out, or because he is the first NBA player. Rather, it matters because it reflects a change in the world that is heartening for those who believe in LGBT rights.
It is now possible for him to come out, and be nearly universally welcomed, just as it was for Steven Davies and Gareth Thomas. That reflects a world more tolerant of different sexualities and gender orientations, a world in which many ordinary people are encouraged and supported when they too come out. If sport can be part of that world, all the better.