Late Monday morning my Twitter feed started blowing up with news that NBA player Jason Collins became the first active player on a major men’s sports team to come out. You can read the article where he came out in Sports Illustrated here.
As some of you know I played Division I baseball in college on an athletic scholarship for a few years before a career ending injury took my life on a different path. Thus, I’ve spent a lot of time in locker rooms and around athletic culture; which is sometimes not the most LGBT friendly place in the world.
I was also fortunate enough to be teammates with nine people who were drafted into the MLB–from my high school AAU team and my collegiate team–four of which ended up making it to the big leagues. After all of these years I still keep in touch with one of them, New York Yankees All-Star Center Fielder Curtis Granderson. Curtis and I text every month or so, and with our various travel schedules try see each other when I’m in NYC or he in Chicago. And when Collins came out I texted Curtis to get his thoughts… More on this later.
This story of “who will come out first” has always intrigued me. It was the summer after my freshman year in college when my three best friends came out to me in three consecutive months. This is where many of you know my story. The part that I don’t talk about is that even after they came out to me I was still playing collegiate baseball, while simultaneously spending huge amounts of time with my newly out best friends in Boystown–the LGBT neighborhood of Chicago. So in some small way I feel like I understand what it means to be associated with LGBT people while a high-level athlete.
Some of my teammates thought it was strange; very strange, that I spent so much time with LGBT people. I did lose a few teammates as friends that initial year after my best friends came out. That experience was the minority on our team, for sure.
In private, I had a few even sheepishly ask me if I was gay. The interesting part was after they asked, each immediately (and quite awkwardly) said,
Well you know, it doesn’t matter if you are. Just wondering…
We have to take into consideration that at the time I was actively playing in college, 1999-2001, there was no gay marriage, the LGBT community as a whole was still highly stigmatized and closeted, and being out was definitely not culturally acceptable. And there it was, some 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 year old’s respectfully saying what they did to me. Retrospectively, I couldn’t be any more proud of them, their character and their willingness to enter into these unknown spaces.
Fast forward 12 years to the exact month, and Jason Collins comes out. In those dozen years, ten States and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. For the first time in US history more people favor gay marriage than oppose it. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is repealed. Modern Family wins every Emmy possible. The list goes on.
I would, however, also like to give some perspective to this moment.
Jason Collins is the first active athlete from a major men’s professional sport to come out, but he is also standing on the shoulders of many others before him–including athletes
Martina Navratilova, Greg Louganis, Billy Bean, Sheryl Swoopes and many others
This week I’ve constantly read others comparing Collins to Jackie Robinson. I don’t think that is comparable in terms of culture. When Robinson broke the color barrier African-Americans weren’t allowed to vote. They had separate bathrooms, restaurants, hotels, water fountains, seats on public transportation… But the first of anything leaves their indelible mark on history. And still, there is a clear connection between the lineage of Jackie Robinson’s skin color and Jason Collins’ announcement. The impact and bravery of Collins’ decision will be felt from this point forward.
And for whatever my opinion is worth, make no mistake about it, I believe the LGBT community could not have a better person be the first active player on a major men’s sports team to come out. In each of his interviews thus far, Collins has humbly paid homage to all those before him. He has a Stanford education. He is articulate, intelligent, poised, thoughtful, well spoken and by everything I’ve ever seen of him, level-headed and nuanced.
He has a huge support system: His former Stanford roommate and current Congressman of Massachuttes, Joe Kennedy, supports him. His Stanford classmate and friend Chealsa Clinton supports him. His twin brother and former NBA player, Jarron Collins, supports him. And not to be forgotten, I also really appreciate his ex-fiance’s support–and yet her candor in the moment of pain she is in. This is truly contemporary society’s reality played out in real time.
Curtis wouldn’t admit this, but everyone on our team in college looked up to him. Take his gentile, thoughtful, un-provoking demeanor and add onto that his immense amount of talent, and you have a recipe for a true leader. On a long bus trip to play in Tennessee our freshman year, Curtis was the first one to talk to me about reading my Bible on the bus. You better believe, everyone’s eyes were directed right at us. Curtis also wouldn’t admit this, but all of a sudden, if Curtis didn’t think it was weird, then it wasn’t weird. Curtis was the first one to start hanging out with me again after my best friends came out. Everybody took notice. Once again, if he thought it wasn’t weird, then it wasn’t. I say all of this because the bravery of someone becoming the first doesn’t sink in for anyone else until someone else stands beside them. Jason Collins is simultaneously the one being the first, and the one standing beside so many others.
During our back-and-forth texting about Collins this week, I think Curtis summed it all up perfectly:
It’s a good story for him [Collins], and hopefully it will open doors for others as well
I’m not much into predicting future, but I will take a stab at this: I don’t feel the NBA, NFL and NHL will have much of a problem with an out gay athlete/teammate. One must never underestimate the power of cultural influences with these scearios. However, I feel MLB has the furthest way to go in their clubhouses–despite friends, leaders and stars like Curtis. I feel this way because Major League Baseball is so Latin heavy (on Opening Day this year, 28% of MLB players are Latin, and that number is quickly on the rise).
If there is one thing my work with the United Nations has shown me over the past few years, it’s the outright disgust many Latinos coming from the Global South have for LGBTs, based on a combination of their religion convictions and what is deemed culturally acceptable. This is something that I hope Bud Selig, MLB club ownership and their players will work to address–that religious beliefs must not dictate our view of shared humanity; especially when it comes to sports. But moreso, I know such a change must also begin from the inner workings of their home countries. This is why our bridge building work between LGBTs and conservatives in parternship with the United Nations, among others, proves so important.
All in all, Jason Collins admission is a step in the right direction. Just like there are out LGBTs in all other spheres of cultural influence, now there is one in the NBA. If nothing else, this is a moment in time we must remember what it means to function together in this pluralistic society, where so many competing worldviews, understandings, orientations, skin colors and levels of ability must come together to work for the common good of humanity.