Fully out, but are we there yet?

Andrew E. Stoner Andrew.Stoner@uwsp.edu

Jason Collins either broke down a major barrier this week with his announcement that he is gay, or he simply added to the unwanted intrusion of social issues into sports.

A read of public reactions such as those of fellow NBA players (and even President Obama) suggests that Collins is politely welcomed as the first openly gay pro basketball player in America (former NBA player John Amaechi didn’t “come out” until after his playing career had ended). A few days removed from Collins’ disclosure, and a wider array of thoughts is surfacing.

A cousin of mine posted a Facebook meme lamenting that now-jobless NFL quarterback Tim Tebow was allegedly vilified for his open discussion and displays of his fundamental Christian beliefs, while Collins “lifestyle choice” is celebrated. Beyond the fact that Collins, nor any person, chooses their sexual orientation and that Tebow was given multiple chances to succeed on the field, the analogy not only fails, but reveals how people really feel.

There’s no getting past this fact: A lot of Americans don’t want to know about, see or hear anything about homosexuals. When it comes to watching ESPN’s SportsCenter or an NBA playoff game, they surely want nothing to do with such issues. When it comes to gay, for many, the less said, the better.

But sports are not played by machines or lifeless beings – sports are played by people with real lives, real thoughts and feelings, facing the same realities of life that confront all of us. Another reality is that some of the people who play these games we love also happen to be gay.

We’ve been here before – many individual athletes come out before – Dave Kopay and Esera Tualo of the NFL, tennis champion Martina Navratilova, Olympic diver Greg Louganis, baseball player Glenn Burke, Seimone Augustus and Brittney Griner of the WNBA, and pro boxer Orlando Cruz.

But change hits some of us harder than a Jason Collins personal foul (a big, tough inside player, Collins led the league with personal fouls called in the 2004-05 season with 322).

A student newspaper columnist at Colorado State University recently stirred considerable controversy when she suggested that gay and lesbian people pipe down – citing a study she found that indicated homosexuals may be 2 percent or less of the population. Coupled with the fact that none of her friends on Facebook were gay (that she knew of), she said she was growing tired of hearing about gay people and thought their profile had become much too large.

What the student columnist – and the online Facebook memes reveal is that we’ve likely reached a level of tolerance for gay people around us, but we’re still far removed from acceptance. The distinction is found in understanding the difference that exists between all people on a multitude of issues – whether they are 2 percent or 20 percent of a population. Acceptance means we find a way to live in harmony with those who are different from us, including supporting their right to full and equal participation in society. Tolerance means we recognize “those people” are about, but we don’t have to be happy about it, especially in our whispered remarks to friends, or our anonymous posts online. We’ve got a long way to go.

Jason Collins will no doubt experience a life not too different from what Jackie Robinson knew in 1947. Robinson’s minority status – the first African-American to break the color barrier in major league baseball – was ever around him. He had no decision to make about “coming out” – and as a result, he had a wide support network and a lifetime of experience to contemplate what breaking a barrier could be like. Collins, on the other hand, is stepping into new territory not only as the first openly gay NBA player, but as someone who has never before been viewed through the “other” lens that still clouds the eye of many Americans.

In coming out, Collins said, “I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. 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, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

Collins’ words and actions are courageous – and he will need all of that courage as he starts his 13th NBA season with a yet-to-be-determined franchise (as he is currently a free agent on waivers from the Washington Wizards).

If he never plays in another NBA game, we will learn a lot. If he plays and weathers whatever storm comes his way, we’ll also learn a lot.

But if we only tolerate him – and view him as a distraction or noisy interference with our love of sport – and miss the noteworthiness of his act, we learn nothing and we continue down a path far beneath championship caliber.

Andrew E. Stoner

Assistant Professor, Division of Communication, teaches public relations and in Spring 2014 will teach COMM 330, Sports Public Relations.

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