24 February 2014

Jason Collins, The First Openly Gay NBA Player

Last night, Jason Collins played eleven minutes for the Brooklyn Nets of the National Basketball Association in their game in Los Angeles, against the hometown Lakers. 

On the surface, this story is typical.   The NBA season is entering its late stages, and the Nets are trying to get into the playoffs. Teams in such a situation often sign veteran players like Collins, whom they value for their experience as well as their skills.

Most people who are not Nets’ fans would not have paid attention were it not for this:  In stepping onto the hardwood in Staples Center, Collins became the first openly gay player in any of the four most-watched men’s major sports leagues (the NBA, National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and the National Football League) in North America.  While I am happy to see him play again, and the way other players have expressed their support for him, his signing got me to thinking.

For one thing, he is a respected veteran player who didn’t “come out” until last year, after more than a decade in the NBA.  What if he were a college player who’d just become eligible for the league’s draft?  Would any team take him if its coach and general manager—not to mention players—knew about his sexual orientation?

For that matter, would he have played in college?  Would any college from which he would have a realistic chance of playing in the NBA have offered him a scholarship to play?

Also, he played for the Nets just after the turn of the century, when they were still based in New Jersey.  They made it to the NBA Championship twice (losing both times) with Collins establishing himself as a disciplined, hard-nosed player.   One of his teammates—and the team’s star—was Jason Kidd, the Nets’ current coach. 

What if he hadn’t had those prior connections to the Nets’ organization?  Would they have brought him back, his skills notwithstanding?  Would another team that could be enhanced by his skills and experience, but doesn’t have a history with him, consider signing him?

In other words, I have to wonder whether a player can “come out” before embarking on a career and still, well, hope to have a career in his sport.  I also have to wonder whether I’ll live to see a professional transgender athlete.

One thing that gives me some hope is that there are many “out” female athletes.  Some, such as Billie Jean King, came out after their playing careers ended, while Martina Navratilova’s sexuality was public knowledge during her career, which began near the end of King’s.  And the Women’s National Basketball Association has had a reputation, among homophobes as well as the enlightened, as a haven for lesbians.

I’ve noticed that straight women tend not to be as troubled by other women who are lesbians as some men are by their gay bretheren.  And, on more than one issue, I’ve noticed that where women go, men follow.  Perhaps the Nets’ brass are at the front of that procession.