Is the sports world ready for Collins and Sam? It sure looks like it
For Jason Collins and Michael Sam, No News Is Good News.
Mahatma Gandhi famously said “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
When it comes to gay athletes in sports, perhaps another line should be added: “Then they ignore you again.”
Jason Collins’ announcement that he was gay in May of last year took place on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and took over the 24-hour media cycle. When he took the floor on Feb. 23, and became the first openly gay male athlete to play in one of America’s “Big 4” pro sports, the moment was celebrated as a major landmark.
And when it was reported on Tuesday that Collins would be with the Nets for the remainder of their season, after the expiration of his second 10-day contract, the response from the sports world was … crickets.
In less than a month, Collins has gone from a ground-breaking, trail-blazing athlete, to a 7-foot-tall, end-of-the-bench center with little to no offensive game, but the ability to defend and commit six fouls when needed.
In other words … just another NBA player.
Since coming out, Collins has been rightly hailed as an eloquent, impressive ambassador for the gay rights movement, but his ability to fade so quickly into the background, to seamlessly become a cog in the NBA machine, may be just as important to LGBT athletes.
Consider, that in a sports landscape where a rumor becomes a national headline, where 24-hour television networks spend as much time creating stories as unearthing them, and where one ill-advised tweet can turn an athlete into a pariah, the only news surrounding Jason Collins has been the popularity, and charitable purpose, of his No. 98 jersey.
No “lost focus.” No “media circus.” No “distractions.”
Credit Collins for being the quiet professional he’s always been. Credit the Nets for celebrating his story while continuing to write their own. But mostly, credit those who have worked, tirelessly, publically and behind the scenes to make sure the sports world was ready for Jason Collins.
Many have long contended that the news of the first major male gay athlete would prove anti-climactic; that locker rooms were actually a far more welcoming, progressive place than many realized. But it takes the hard work of organizations like Athlete Ally, the You Can Play project, and Outsports.com to create such an environment. These groups have made it quite clear that in 2014, it is not too much to expect the sports world to be as tolerant and evolved as the rest of the country.
For a number of years, the sports media has been asking if <insert league here> was “ready” for a gay athlete. But perhaps it is time to stop letting fear of backlash, or concern over a harsh reaction, get in the way of what is truly a revolutionary time for openly gay athletes. Jason Collins has proven that most of the sports world is indeed “ready,” and probably has been for some time. And experience teaches us that those that aren’t will get there in time.
Over a year ago, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver’s anti-gay remarks at Super Bowl media day made him an unfortunate example of the NFL’s perceived intolerance, a symbol of the work the league still had to do. Today, Culliver stands ready to welcome a gay teammate, after his work with The Trevor Project, a non-profit which seeks to prevent LGBT suicides, changed his perspective on homosexuality. Now, Culliver is a different kind of example. He is living proof that education and exposure leads to greater tolerance.
Culliver wasn’t “ready” for a gay teammate a year ago, but he was ready and willing to learn. So maybe we’ve been asking the wrong question.
In less than two months, Michael Sam will wait for the same draft day phone call that has changed so many lives. His strong senior season at Missouri, coupled with questions about his size, and a so-so combine performance, has led to a wide range of guesses as to where Sam will be drafted, and ultimately begin his career.
In other words … just another NFL prospect.
Sam may become a Pro-Bowler and play 10 years in the NFL. Or he could find himself struggling to make an NFL roster in the fall. But if Jason Collins teaches us anything, here’s one thing that won’t happen. His arrival in training camp won’t turn the NFL inside-out. As he takes the field in the pre-season, it won’t throw the league into a state of chaos. And when he makes his first tackle, it won’t trigger a rebellion among football fans.
Michael Sam doesn’t want to change the game; he just wants to be a part of it. And Jason Collins’ quiet month in Brooklyn suggests that Sam’s desire to “just be a football player” might be more attainable than anyone realized.
So is the NFL “ready” for Michael Sam? Ready or not, here he comes.