Former Celtics center Jason Collins became the first active professional athlete to announce he is gay in an article he wrote for the May 6 issue of Sports Illustrated. First and foremost, we should thank Collins for kick-starting the public discourse about homosexuality in sports that will ensue in the coming weeks. His decision to come out is brave. Still, I’m worried about exactly how the conversation will unfold.
From the inconsequential (Internet message boards riddled with disgusting commentary), to the irresponsible (pundits with ratings and page views to amass), and, unfortunately, to ignorant peers (fellow athletes, like 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, who made homophobic remarks about gay athletes prior to the Super Bowl), across the board, reaction will range from humane to reprehensible.
It’s ironic, really: As an industry, sports are constantly looking to be progressive from a product standpoint – asking pertinent enterprise-level questions about how to improve the game or consumer experience. While collaborative discussion is typically healthy, I fear that, in this case, the conversation will illuminate how far behind the rest of the world professional sports are.
I wouldn’t call Collins’s decision to raise his hand “heroic.” This is a sports story miscast as something different, a societal milestone where a line of demarcation was traversed. In reality, the more alarming question is why, in 2013, did this not happen sooner? “Loyalty to my team is the real reason I didn't come out sooner,” Collins wrote in his SI article. “When I signed a free-agent contract with Boston last July, I decided to commit myself to the Celtics and not let my personal life become a distraction.”
This has callbacks to the controversial pre-draft interviews conducted by NFL teams that were said to have probed rookies about their personal lives, even inquiring around sexuality, stirring a public debate as to whether or not this line of questioning was appropriate. But whether the inquisition was legitimate is irrelevant (for the record, it wasn’t). Collins’ remarks reflected the same concerns scouts had; meaning that while unfair, the stigma exists. Perception is the issue here.
Sports is based on results. Anything precluding desired outcomes is a perceived liability. Drug and alcohol abuse. Demanding a trade. Complaining to the media about playing time. Guaranteeing a victory. Calling out opponents. In the sports world, these are distractions. Evidently, according to Collins, so is one’s sexuality. And that’s disheartening, if not frightening.
Ironically, Collins cited loyalty to a team that later traded him as the reason for not coming out sooner. Loyalty and honesty reveal truth and character. Initially, honesty is what I’m afraid of. But hopefully it fathers progress in an industry that desperately needs it.
Follow Ryan Hadfield on Twitter @Hadfield__