Jason Collins would never have been mistaken for an NBA player of much consequence.
He has played for six different teams, four in the last five years. He has averaged as many personal fouls per game as points—often more—in seven of his 12 seasons. This past season could have been his last in the league, as his 1.1 points and 1.6 rebounds per game aren’t likely to be in demand on the free-agent market.
In his first person essay in Sports Illustrated, Collins even ridiculed his own unremarkable career, writing, “I take charges and I foul—that’s been my forte. … I enter the court knowing I have six hard fouls to give.”
Deadspin’s Drew Magary highlighted a tweet that was subsequently retweeted thousands of times: “Jason Collins has a career average of 3 pts and 3 rebounds per game. Gay or straight he should never be mentioned on Sportscenter.”
Indeed, there seemed to be a broad effort in some corners to make Collins’s announcement seem underwhelming because he has been an underwhelming professional athlete. That his on-court contributions were insignificant should have done nothing to diminish his newfound significance off the court. But, a week later, that’s effectively what has happened.
“Why couldn’t he have come out as LeBron James?” Jason Jones exasperatedly mocked on The Daily Show.
Even in jest, Jones had a point: Few things captivate the American public like celebrities. Collins simply doesn’t possess the cachet or platform to galvanize typical sports fans any more than the openly gay star athletes who preceded him, including Glenn Burke, Martina Navratilova, and Sheryl Swoopes. If Collins never plays another minute in the NBA, his story will more resemble John Amaechi’s than even Brittany Griner’s.
“Collins probably would have had a tough time landing a contract offer even before coming out,” The Los Angeles Times’s Kevin Baxter wrote. “If recent history is any indication, his admission won't make that road any smoother. It's not known how fans will react should he return to the court.”
What we do know about American sports fans, however, is that they like the NFL. Actually, like isn’t a strong enough word: “The last great reach vehicle for advertisers,” Adweek calls it. The NFL dominates the country’s sports and entertainment landscape; 24 of the 25 most-watched television shows last fall were NFL games.
For better or worse, the NFL is the closest we come to a true national sport. “The cultural, political and social crossroads of the United States is no longer to be found in Times Square or on Pennsylvania Avenue,” ESPN.com’s Jeff MacGregor wrote in February. “It's not on Hollywood Boulevard or out on Route 66 or even over on Main Street. It is wherever the Super Bowl is being played.”
With football’s mostly unchallenged status as America’s favorite sport, one can’t help but wonder how many more people would have been reached—and how many more beliefs challenged—if Collins wore cleats instead of sneakers.
Before Collins stepped forward, journalists were waiting on a current NFL player to publicly come out as gay in the next few months. The holdup, CBSSports.com reported, was that “the player fears he will suffer serious harm from homophobic fans.”
Given that reality, the openly gay athlete most likely to fully capture our attention will probably need to be either a major star (think LeBron) or someone from the NFL.
That’s because football reflects our high-minded and inane societal norms alike: The subjugation of self for team success and an infatuation with heteronormative conformity. No doubt many of us look toward the gridiron for ideals about a certain kind of masculinity if not outright machismo.
Football players are supposed to be our manliest men. Their acceptance of a gay man into that world could go a long way toward unpacking some of the most insidious stereotypes about gay people.
Plus, the NBA has already shown itself capable of progressivism distinct from the rest of professional sports (particularly football); it embraced Magic Johnson following his HIV announcement in 1991 and handled the cross-dressing proclivities of Dennis Rodman deftly.
Collins’s announcement is the next step in the long trend toward acceptance. It was indeed important, and he should be lauded for his courage. But it was the sort of predictable and incremental change from a fringe player that could never really test our collective conscience.
The U.S. gay-rights movement still faces significant challenges, from the U.S. Supreme Court deliberations over the Defense of Marriage Act, to employment discrimination, to anti-bullying legislation aimed at protecting of LGBT children.