Let’s be honest, the real story around Jason Collins coming out isn’t that he announced he was gay. It’s that America was largely nonplussed with the announcement. No companies have boycotted the NBA or the teams Collins has played for in the league; in fact, the response to Jason’s story has been overwhelmingly positive from fans, fellow athletes and the media.
This is a testament to where the country is on gay rights, the assimilation of gay men and women into the sporting world and our ability as sports fans to include an openly gay athlete into the natural conversation around sports.
Collins isn’t the first out professional American athlete and, surprisingly, he isn’t the first out U.S. major league professional male athlete. That distinction goes to Glenn Burk, who played for the Dodgers and Athletics in the 1970s. The big difference was that no team or media outlet wanted to have the discourse around an openly gay-male U.S. professional athlete at that time. And no company was looking to break the barrier of signing an openly out gay-male athlete. This is what makes Collins’ announcement exciting and ground-breaking.
The conversation about gays in professional sports was already in full swing before Collins’ made his announcement last week. In the past few years, several straight athletes such as Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo have spoken up for gay rights and the need for leagues and teams to create a safe environment for athletes to come out. For months, reporters, sports blogs and LGBT blogs have speculated that a major U.S. professional male athlete would come out. Companies such as Nike have lined up and been vocal in their desire to sign the first out professional male U.S. athlete. The stage was set for Collins’ announcement and the reaction was more than most had hoped for. It doesn’t matter whether Collins was a household name before he made his announcement.
The simple fact is that he was the first, the one with the most courage to be honest and to begin to break down the stereotype about gay male athletes in a professional league. Without a doubt the story would have created more frenzy if an A-list U.S. major league professional male athlete came out, but would it have made more of an impact? He is a household name now and will be watched by the world to see how he responds. So this begs the question (and the real story)… what’s next? What’s next for Collins, what’s next for sponsors and what is next for the sporting community? These aren’t easy questions to answer and each answer poses the possibility of building up this historic announcement or creating more of a circus around it. At the heart of the discussion will be Collins and how he charts his own course depending on his agenda … and his future play.
As a free agent, Collins will have the ability to find and work with a team and continually drive the conversation of gays in sports and work to break down any remaining barriers for gay men and women in sports, at all levels. He can tackle significant issues such as homophobia in sports, creating safe playing environments at all levels, or just ride the celebrity of being the first openly-gay male professional athlete. With his measured responses to-date and subtle support of gay issues prior to coming out, I think Collins will be a true statesman for other gay athletes at all levels. However, his new team will have to be prepared to take on and embrace the responsibility that comes with signing Collins, and equally as important, their part in the history of this story and gays in professional sports. The signing of Collins signifies a team’s respect for gay athletes and commitment to furthering the sport. Teams will have to weigh their support of Collins with the impact of their brand, as well as reaction from their players and their fans. Whichever team sign Collins, they will have all eyes on them.
Collins instantly became a role-model to countless male and female athletes across the country and with a price. His past life is already under scrutiny and any move he makes, professional and personally, will be covered, dissected and commented on by media worldwide. By all accounts, Collins is a solid player whose skills will add value to the right team. But now, he has the added pressure to continue to perform at or higher than his current level to prove that an openly gay male athlete can compete with his straight counterparts. If he slips in his game, the conversation could quickly become how an openly gay-male professional player can’t compete due to the pressure. In the same vein that Collins can work with a team to shape the conversation, he will have more significant chances to align himself with companies and brands to create opportunities to affect change in not only the sporting community, but the general population as well. The real challenge is to partner with sponsors who want to work with Collins to bring about change in sports.
Sponsors will need to determine how they want to utilize Collins to help strengthen their respective brand and will have to weigh commerce vs. community. Collins, already a Nike-sponsored athlete, has the unique opportunity not given to many sports stars to create real and lasting change in the community that will resonate long after his playing career is finished. Possibly the group with the most influence in this conversation is the media. Needing to walk a fine line, the media will have the responsibility to drive the conversation in a respectful and unobtrusive manner around Collins and future gay athletes. Proving that an athlete’s skills and leadership are more valuable than their personal lives will avoid turning this into a salacious story full of innuendo and gossip.
As we have all seen around this topic, one news story or comment from a reporter can quickly eclipse the conversation and take the dialogue down a hateful and unproductive avenue. This is not an easy conversation to have, although it should be. This topic brings out the worst fears in some fans and opens up conversations that normally wouldn’t be a part of a sports story. Collins admits that he didn’t start out to be the first openly-gay male playing in a major U.S. professional sports league, but he says he is happy to have started the conversation.
However, with two words, Collins not only started the conversation, but has set out to lead us all into an exciting chapter in American sports history. This isn’t the first social barrier sports have helped break down and I am sure it won’t be the last. I say it is up to all of us to continue the conversation Collins started and open the doors to create real and lasting change in how we act and think. Once this begins, sports can again be the catalyst for creating true change.
Gregory Lee Hendricks is executive vice president and head of the Chicago office for MATTER.