It seemed like only a week ago we were all talking about Brittney Griner coming out as a lesbian during the WNBA draft and the lack of fanfare that it created. The reason, (at the time) was because she was a woman, the WNBA isn’t a major sport in America, and the stereotype is that all WNBA players are gay. Just wait until a MAN come out, in one of those macho sports, like baseball or basketball or football that’s when real change is coming we scoffed to ourselves. Well, now it’s happened. Yesterday Jason Collins has shocked the sports world and the nation with his heartfelt and reflective essay on coming out. He literally knocked Tim Tebow off the press pages, and now it’s time for America to get back up and see the truth.
There have always been, and always will be homosexuals, and bisexuals in professional sports. This is not news to anyone who’s played a team sport in high-school or college. The real issue has never been the existence of gays in sports, only in how we as a public and consumers of sports respond to these announcements. The fear, not completely unjustified, has always been that owners and fans would reject any active player that was gay. Less than a week ago you had the Kerry Rhodes story where an NFL player insists that he was passed over for a contract because rumors (oh and PICTURES) surfaced showing him and his partner frolicking in the water. Was Rhodes denied the chance to play football because he was gay? Or was it because he wasn’t a good player anymore? No one knows, but he clearly believes that played a role, which is why so few athletes are willing to do what Jason Collins just did. But it also explains exactly WHY Jason Collins was able to do what he just did.
While his years as a tough defender in the NBA will help dispel stereotypes about gay men being incapable to playing sports, the timing of his announcement reinforces how much of a challenge being gay in professional sports remains. Collins is 34 years old, he’s a free agent, his career is near or at it’s end by most accounts. In other words, he doesn’t have nearly as much to lose making this announcement now as he would have if he was 24. Not just because it would have been 2003 and the nation was less open to even the IDEA of gay entertainers but because the risk of losing a potential contract because of some bigot in the front office is much more daunting when you still believe you’ve got 10 years of basketball left in you.
I wish Collins and any other professional male (or female athletes) who feel the need to come out the best of luck. The nation is changing, consumers are changing, and I truly believe that most sports fans don’t really care if their favorite athletes are gay or straight as long as they remain entertaining and somewhat relatable. It’s already obvious with the coverage of Collins coming out. Only in 2013 could a 34 year old black man and professional athlete telling the world that he’s gay become a bigger story than a white Christian straight football hero like Tim Tebow getting cut from the New York Jets.
DR. JASON JOHNSON, Politic365 Chief Political Correspondent, is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. You can read more at www.drjasonjohnson.com or follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson.