Solidarity With Gay Athletes: The Jason Collins Announcement

Jason Collins has announced to the world that he is a gay.

This is a marvelous act. It is being congratulated by many including many NBA players and many other professional athletes as well as politicians, team owners, and celebrities. Good. Jason Collins exhibits admirable courage and eloquence albeit that this announcement would have been more difficult to make five or ten years ago. And even greater than that fifteen or twenty years ago. Yet, alas, how much the better thingswould now be in many ways if an athlete not yet retired could have made such an announcement twenty, fifteen, ten or five years ago. Because the social and socio-political resonances and permutations of this could have played a role, small but significant, in what would have been a historically even more beneficial impetus towards helping to reduce the sum of suffering, anguish, fear, and indecision, particularly among LGBT children and young people, and the sum of prejudice and violence against this community. If something is truly possible at an earlier historical moment, and I believe such an annoncement was, then better sooner rather than later. Better positive effects and their potential to proliferate earlier rather than later. 2013 is very late in relation to what could have happened five and ten and even fifteen years ago and this missed possibility can give us much upon which we can reflect and particularly in terms of what those who did not have contemplate the kind of announcement that Collins had now made.

There has been in the past decade and increasingly in the past few years a rapid and positive advance in results achieved by the LGBT liberation movement and cause, given that this movement’s actions and the historical effects thereby created in relation to other historical circumstances have now made possible a rapid and positive shift in the general population’s understanding and inclusion of the openly gay and lesbian population (but not year near enough in relation to the transgender community) in the United States and in many other countries.

There will be lessons for all in this announcement and in the circumstances it engenders. Many of these lessons will be positive in ways not just related to LGBT liberation, emancipation, and integration and in relation to the concomitant need for a much greater—a finally complete—elimination of all de jure and defacto discrimination against this community. Of course, one aspect in all this is that Collins’ announcement actually lags behind what I believe would have already been possible five, ten, fifteen years ago. In our present moment Collins will be accepted with far less negative repercussions both in general and in his immediate workplace situation in relation to team and locker room than has been hitherto speculated by many. This is evident in that already in the week subsequent to his announcement “the story”, “the event”, scarcely summons more than cursory attention any more. Yet, even ten years ago general ideas and attitudes had advanced to such a degree that had a male athlete come out in the NBA, NFL, NHL, or Major League baseball, for example, there would not have been an appreciably greater negative reaction than today in terms of that athlete’s ability to perform, maintain his career, and exist in a locker room, and certainly if this athlete had been someone of greater star stature (and perhaps at an earlier point in his career) than is Collins at this moment—and this not withstanding that ten years ago a larger segment of the population than now was still “evolving” (term of “self-explanation” utilized by those who in actuality misunderstood that “coming out” with their own “tolerant”, if even “supportive” views, would not have done them political damage). Certainly five years ago, but even ten years ago, to still be “evolving” was to be appreciably behind the times in terms of the general zeitgeist in relation to LGBT emancipation.

But given the particular way sports exists socially and culturally in the contemporary world it is and it would have been important, very important for a male athlete—or for that matter a male rapper or r&b singer, given the social and cultural contours and significance of musical entertainers in our contemporaneity—in a major sport to come out because this example would be able to give a particular and special kind of acceleration to the enlightenment of our species in relation to all questions of LGBT liberation.Such an action then and now could have and can now serve as an example of knowledge, comfort, and hope, indeed can serve as a socio-cultural and existential mirror and particularly for five, ten, fifteen year-old boys discovering that their own given structure and impulse of attraction is directed at and impels them towards those of their own gender—and all the more so for five, ten, fifteen (and 25, 35, 45!) year old boys and men who exist in families, schools, locales, work places, religious institutions where prejudice, animosity, and violence remain vehement in relation to those born with this same-gender structure of attraction. But even more importantly— and this is decisive— such an action then and now can serve as a sign, a lesson, an indication, which is to say as an inescapably visible circumstance and fact and as aninescapable reference and spur for consideration on the part of five, ten, fifteen, year old boys, and 20, 25, 30 year old young men—and of course for all of our species both nationally and globally—who have hitherto exhibited hostile attitudes and dogmatic-prejudicial misunderstanding of the LGBT community. In a certain sense the absence of a visible gay athlete could up till now serve as a support for foundational and received prejudice on the part of those hostile either in strong or weak ways to the LGBT community. Sports up till now could be the preserve, the harbor, the reinforcing mechanism of prejudice. But now these prejudices, these dogmatic misunderstandings which could take “shelter” in sports and could thereby socio-psychologically maintain themselves will no longer be able to keep at bay the presence, the visibility, the actuality of a gay athlete—and thereby the natural and naturally normative meaning and existence of being gay. A gay athlete in a major sport—and in this context a Black gay athlete—becomes a powerful pedagogical and socially normative force.

Consequently, I think it is important to talk about another circumstance the absence of which truly needs to be publicized at this moment. In recent weeks and months there has been increasing and noticeable attention to the possible coming out of a gay athlete in a major sport. Op-ed pieces in leading newspapers discussed this and quoted various sports figures, David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, among them. Stern echoed a common theme when he said it was not a question of if but rather when a gay athlete would come out. The trajectory of this recent attention was that we had now reached a stage of development where the coming out of still active gay athlete in a major sport was an inevitability. Yet it is my contention that historically, socially, politically, and existentially this notion of inevitability is not what should have been said by sports figures or by other public figures. What David Stern or others in his position should have and could have said and what was conspicuous in not being said is that if and when a gay athlete [or let me add, an actor or singer or rapper] comes out, that this person could count not just on their and their organization’s “support” in public statements but even more could count on theirsolidarityin material and institutional frameworks, which is to say in acts helping to establish the publicly visible social, institutional, and personal infrastructures—on the job, in the locker room, in the salary negotiation process, on airplanes, hotels, in public NBA statement and self-presentation, etc—necessary to make this coming out comfortable and easier for whomever chooses to do so—and which already existing statements and already existing networks infrastructures, and systems had they really been brought into being could have enabled Jason Collins (or some other player) to have made his announcement sooner and perhaps even at the beginning of his career which would thereby have saved Collins the years of that misery and fear about which he in his article in Sports Illustrated said he suffered while closeted.

Social internet sites and newspaper articles and columns now fill up with NBA players and others expressing support. Again, well and good. But how much the better it would have been if all of these players—and especially the most protected and secure, i.e. superstars and stars—and others, had expressed such thoughts five, ten, fifteen years ago. Or even just a year or two or three ago. Or months or weeks or days ago. In other words, how much the better if David Stern and if superstar players and commissioners and superstars in other sports (the NHL did recently announce publicly a policy of support and openness in relation to gay players) could have said this visibly, loudly, publicly, and repeatedly yesterday and not today! And they should have and—this is the key point both in terms of what has long been a really existing possibility—they could have. NBA all star games have in recent years become something more than they previously had been and something more than all other major league all star games. They have become not just games, rather they have become special “holiday” weekends, even more they have become a yearly Event in which the celebration and proliferation of sexuality—heterosexuality—is a not insignificant part. But how much the better, how much more eventful it would have been, if at one of these games, five years ago, ten years ago, fifteen years ago, all the players in the game could have stood together and said: “We are distressed at the discrimination, prejudice, hostility, and violence directed against the LGBT members of our population and society and at the LGTB members of our basketball community [in the past few years it has become a watchword in the NBA, i.e. commissioners, executives, announcers, etc. now speak—in a language which seeks ineptly to cover the corporate realities—of the “NBA ‘family'”]. We don’t want any of our teammates who feel that they must live in hiding and fear to continue to live in this way amongst us. We want to state that if and when one of our teammates or colleagues is ready to live openly, to come out to his family, friends, and to us—and to the world—that we would welcome that, we would celebrate that, we would support that, but above all we will stand beside them in solidarity and repel any prejudice, hostility, incivility or intolerance that would come their way from the public, from management, from the media world, and certainly from any of their teammates whether it be in the locker room, at the hotel, in team sessions, on airplane flights, etc. etc. We want them to know that we will not just mouth the words, “We have your back”? More than that, much more than that, we will travel with them on this path—together, linked, yes, in solidarity—and we will help forge the social and institutional structures needed to make it ever easier for others to come out and live as freely as we do now with our heterosexual attractions, desires, and orientation. But we want to say more: we want to say to all the young people who watch us play basketball, who play basketball themselves, who admire us, model themselves upon us, whether in style of play or in basketball shoes bought or in any other way, we want to say to them that we deplore prejudice and verbal and physical violence against people who are gay or lesbian or transgender, we want to say to them that we have teammates who are gay, some of whom are stars and superstars, and we want to say that we are proud of them as you should be too. And we want to say to young people that if you are attracted to someone of your own gender that this is a completely natural tendency, a natural variation among humans just as, for example, hair color and skin color exist in natural variation among our species and that you should not be ashamed and that we will increasingly speak up against the prejudice, hostility, violence, and lack of understanding you must face from family or friends or from people in your school, place of religious worship, or community. Yes, we want to say to young people that when you speak or act badly or with hostility or derision in relation to gay people you will be speaking against us and against our teammates and you will be speaking against what is good in all of us.”

It would have been nice if something like this could have happened. And even in the world such as it is and even such as it has been in the previous decade or two, such a thing could have happened. And the example here of the superstars and stars at an all star game is but one example. NBA team owners could have stood up together and said this. NBA coaches could have stood up together and said this. NCAA division one coaches—and particularly those with the most successful records, the largest salaries, and most protected futures—could have stood up and said that they no longer wanted to coach young men in a world in which some of their players had to live in secret and in fear and that not only did they no longer want to do this but that they would begin to create the kind of social and institutional frameworks making it immediately possible for any of their players to live and play on the team openly and happily. And not just coaches. Sports writers, sports commentators, sports talk show hosts. Years ago on Jim Rome’s national syndicated radio sports talk show a former professional baseball player said that gay people were sissies and that he would not want to have them in the locker room. Rome probably disagreed with this player’s prejudice and hatred of gay people but after the interview he cited this player as an example of why the sports world was not yet ready and would for a long time to come not be ready for someone to come out. Rome was sociologically wrong. Had someone come out ten or fifteen years ago, he would have found acceptance and the storm, though bigger than it would have been today when there was scarcely a storm at all, would have quickly abated. And progress in the good sense of the word would have been enhanced. But Rome could have said that the real sissies in the sports world were the heterosexual players who did not have to live in misery, fear, and hiding as Collins said he had to live all these years. It was the gay athletes who were the far braver and courageous men, whether closeted or not. Rome could have said this, he could have encouraged others to say this, he could have made his program a welcoming place in the event that someone would come out. Active rather than passive should have been, could have been Rome’s mode, could have been the mode of all others. And such active modes and above all the collective statement which I have just said a group of NBA superstars and stars could have made would have had significant and demonstrably postive impacts on young people and children both gay and straight.

Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal on TNT spoke congratulatory words in relation to Collins’ decision and announcement. But Barkley and O’Neal by virtue of their superstardom were safe to have said all this long ago, were safe to have sought to speak collectively with other of their peers, i.e. Michael Jordon, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, etc. They could have said this three years ago or in the heyday of their careers, in other words on their own and not in relation to the solicitations of their opinions brought about by Collins’ announcement. Barack Obama after the announcement called Jason Collins to express his support. Doubtless other figures who have equal or greater institutional power than David Stern or Charles Barkley could have expressed support prior to rather than post hoc when it is safe and easy and in many many ways much too late. Michelle Obama said, “Jason, we have your back.” But a year ago she and her husband did not have Jason Collins’ back when they easily and without penalty could have had his back two, three, four or even many years ago. Late is not always better than never. Sometimes late is simply too late and much too opportunistic. The Obamas not only made an ethical miscalculation, but even in terms of their own narrow realpolitik and political power self-interest, they would have had more to gain by expressing their own actual tolerant opinions five years ago rather than well past the point when there was no possible (or even imagined) political loss. Theoretically “courage” ought to be the easier the higher up one goes and the more protected one becomes. But in this case it took no courage at all yesterday and much less today.

Much has been said, particularly of late(!), about the immediate, selfless, courageous expressions of aid and support given victims in this or that disaster whether in Boston or Texas, etc. This is of course an absolutely natural and universal tendency among some members of our species whether in this or that country or society and whether in this century or a thousand centuries ago. People were immediately and selflessly running to help those injured in the building collapse in Bangladesh last week. Certainly there are instances where someone in distress finds no aid as onlookers do nothing, not wanting “to get involved”. But most often in such instances there are always some ready to plunge in to help. Again, it is a natural impulse of our species-being. Well and good in Boston and in Texas—and Bangladesh. But how nice it would have been if these recent celebrations of aid could have included celebrations of the far less dangerous act of aid and comfort which everyone expressing support for Jason Collins today could have given yesterday or a thousand or ten thousand yesterdays ago. Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Jackie Robinson in an expression of solidarity and comfort. But he was not among the non-existent group of players expressing the idea that a segregated league was unjust and should not be allowed to continue as such. Of course in Reese’s day professional athletes had scarcely any job security at all and were literally owned by the team for which they played. Yet even more there was a non-existent group of owners who several years prior to Robinson’s rookie year could have said they did not want to wait till the white supremacist commissioner, Kenesaw Landis, retired or died to begin to sign African American players to once again play in Major League baseball as they once had in the l880s.

Jason Collins will now have arms put around him. Well and good. And the more the better. But let the construction of welcoming networks and institutions finally and for the first time and as a beginning—and ever the more visibly—be put in place so that others can the more quickly and easily come out. But let us not be too late in relation to other persecuted members of our society, let us not be too late in relation to five or ten or fifteen year olds who realizing that their attraction to those of the same sex puts them in danger in their own family, in their school, in all the places they live and inhabit. And so let all who express congratulations to Jason Collins today simultaneously not congratulate themselves but rather publicly lament that they did not do so sooner and in this lamentation let an ever greater form of enlightenment take place both in everyone’s self-understanding and in terms of everyone’s resolve to exhibit far more admirable future actions than they hitherto demonstrated in relation to others in the LGBT community and in relation to whomever needs aid, support, and comfort.