The Importance of Jason Collins

by Farmer Jones / @thefarmerjones

It’s staggering how quickly all this has changed.

We didn’t have Twitter to take the pulse of reaction six years ago when John Amaechi came out, but if we had, the tone sure as hell would’ve been different than it was Monday afternoon. Those of us with an opinion and a place to share it at the time—the civilized, generally progressive folks who make up what I now think of as the heart of Basketball Twitter—were largely supportive of Amaechi, but there was plenty of flack, as well.

He wasn’t very good so who cares. Well…

He’s just trying to sell a book. Partly true, but missed the point.

If he really wanted to change things, he would’ve come out while he was still in the League. Yeah. Easy for us to say.

So yes, it’s staggering how quickly, and how drastically, all this has changed. Jason Collins came out on Monday, and while there was plenty of predictable bile spewed in Twitter’s knuckle-dragging subterranean realm, those of us with a recognized voice and audience—no matter your follower count—were in near-universal agreement. A brave, important step. Inspirational. Good for him.

It was telling, of course, that the pitiable talking head (who I swear was a pretty good newspaper reporter in a previous life) and the decrepit play-by-play guy who spoke out against Collins’ announcement came off as outliers, ignorant savages among the civilized. This is how progress works: Voices that were once mainstream (and of course they’re still closer to the mainstream than most of us would like to admit) are always just a few steps away from being revealed as the dinosaurs they are. Progress took another of those steps yesterday. It was a good day.

I’m not sure how much this particular step will matter. As much as things have changed, it’s an odd coincidence that the guy to follow Amaechi—to be willing and able to take it that one step further, and do this while still (probably) an NBA player—is another middling big man. No doubt, there were some gay high school ballplayers yesterday—maybe a few, maybe a few thousand—who read about Collins’ announcement and were truly strengthened and inspired.

The importance of that can’t—truly, cannot—be underestimated.

But I’m thinking more about the straight kids, the young basketball players and fans who, if they know Jason Collins at all, know him as a little-used big man who played for two teams last season and averaged about a point a game. Those kids’ personal judgment meters won’t likely be moved by the knowledge that Jason Collins is gay; if they’re already ignorant or intolerant, this news won’t change anything.

I trust it’s obvious that I’m in no way criticizing Collins or his decision. But I am thinking of Jackie Robinson, who we remember less for breaking the color barrier than for being an amazing baseball player who broke the color barrier. Again, this is nothing against Collins, but as I’ve said before, I’m hoping for gay LeBron—not for LeBron to be gay, but for someone of that caliber, or at least reasonably close to it, an All-Star, a great player that gay and straight kids alike try to emulate at the playground or in the gym.

Jason Collins isn’t that guy. That’s fine—it’s still a wonderful, significant step—but the bigger, more important step in the 24 hours or so since his story broke has been the collective response of Jason’s peers. Kobe Bryant, Baron Davis and Steve Nash were among the first on Twitter and elsewhere, and many others followed. The show of support almost felt like a compulsion for these guys, and that’s a good thing; the players we didn’t hear from, we’ll just have to give the benefit of the doubt.

The Miami Heat had a well-deserved day off Monday, and so we didn’t have a chance to hear from LeBron. Today we did: “I think it’s a strong thing to day, I think it’s cool.” This was a great response: few words, a sense that it’s no big deal, that it should be no big deal. Of course this is the goal, and today we’re closer to it. The more guys like LeBron treat it like it’s no big deal, the faster we’ll get there.

I like LeBron, and I only held it slightly against him in 2007 when he responded to the news of Amaechi’s coming out by questioning the bond of trust that a gay player would disrupt in the locker room. He was a 22-year-old kid who didn’t have the benefit of a formative college experience, and the words came from ignorance, not hate. Whether by gradual evolution or concerted effort, LeBron has matured, roughly on pace (I’d argue) with the society of which he is a very rich, very famous member.

So this, too, was progress. We need more, and so I’ll keep rooting for the emergence of a gay LeBron, or a gay Durant, a gay Adrian Peterson, a gay Leo Messi, a gay Mike Trout. (Sorry, I don’t know any hockey players.) In the meantime, I’ll defer to Amaechi, my old college classmate and the guy who, at least for a male athlete in a major American team sport, blazed this path.

“Received 100+ notes from people from Doha to Dallas saying how @jasoncollins34 makes them feel happier & more hopeful,” Amaechi tweeted Tuesday. “He’s the difference!”

We should all look forward to the day where it’ll make no difference at all.