In the May 6 issue of Sports Illustrated, NBA center Jason Collins wrote: “I’m a 34-year old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay….I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, “I’m different.” If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, so I’m raising my hand.”
But this is a new twist on the story — here’s an athlete at the top of his game challenging cultural ideas about sexuality at the very moment gay marriage is topping the charts of our national conversation, and demonstrating that masculinity and virtuoso athletics are not merely heterosexual. It’s a big risk. (Although it was bigger in the 1970s, 80s and 90s when other active or retired athletes have come out. See Stephen Wilson’s AP feature about other gay athletes who have come out.)
Two things immediately strike me as significant about this moment. First, Collins is claiming an authentic place as a role model at a point of professional and political power. Second, he feels (as all leaders do when they take such a risk) as if he is alone and vulnerable.
This kind of authenticity challenges prejudice and cultural ignorance in a powerful way, tapping into the role model status of great athletes while insisting on being real, aligning personal and professional identities. And its a risk because we are still a homophobic culture, and the big 4 sports reflect that homophobia more than any other arena.
According to sports agent Arn Tellem, “Jason has made a courageous decision. Coming out publicly required immense bravery. All sorts of people are still rejected by their families, targeted by bigots and harassed by vigilantes just because they decide to tell the truth about their sexuality. Former center John Amaechi, closeted over his five NBA seasons, has said, “The fears of society are distilled into the small space of the locker room.” (Read More: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/magazine/news/20130429/jason-collins-reveals-gay-nba-arn-tellem/#ixzz2RxjyC9js)
Amaechi is eloquent. “The fears of society are distilled into the small space of the locker room.”
Tennis great Martina Navratilova weighed in, calling Collins a “game changer:”
When I came out, in 1981, I didn’t have much public support and I know I lost endorsements. But I never had to worry about losing my job. In tennis, there are no bosses, no general managers and no coaches who can keep players from competing. So I was safe in that regard. For team sports athletes, this is not the case. A homophobic coach at any level — high school, college or pros — could keep a player from playing. Remember Rene Portland, the women’s basketball coach at Penn State? She proudly boasted she would not allow a lesbian on her team. In the past, that kind of homophobia would have had support from the front office. Why come out when — apart from dealing with all the other complications — it could kill your sports career!
Any revolution starts with a small step. As I see it, this one started with Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and his R-rated (but darn smart and funny) editorial on Deadspin last year. That was a catalyst because it then became clear: Straight players were standing in support of gays in general — and their gay teammates, whoever they might be. Those gay athletes might have been deeply closeted, but there was unspoken acknowledgement: We know you exist. Kluwe wasn’t shunned or ridiculed for his stance. The tables turned. It was the homophobes who were left standing in the cold, scorned and criticized by fans and the media. How is that for a turnaround in, relatively speaking, a very short time?” (Read More: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/magazine/news/20130429/martina-navratilova-jason-collins-reaction/#ixzz2RxksBrnS)
It also makes him feel alone — because being really authentic means acknowledging where we’re different, and taking a risk, saying “This is who I am,” means having the courage to live authenticity in a way that makes us vulnerable.
So even though his “first” is really one of many brave firsts in the athletic world, it’s easy to understand why he feels the powerful isolation of “raising his hand.” So far, there’s not much backlash.
USA Today assesses his chances of getting a good job with a good team mostly based on his sports record opened with the lead: “Jason Collins isn’t any different than several other NBA players.”
As a leader in a profession that often traps its heroes on stereotyped, narrow pedestals, Collins has made a choice that is liberating, not only for him, but for other athletes afraid to be themselves in the face of the pressure to conform. Whatever the dislocation between their inner and outer selves, other athletes will find it’s easier to “raise their hands” and be fully present.
And in a profession that is as much about being a role model as being a skilled athlete, that’s a good change towards effective leadership for the whole field.