The first openly gay man in a major American pro sports league is generously proportioned enough to ward off any foam-flecked bigots, at 7 feet and 255 pounds, but Jason Collins has a less-easy-to-identify kind of fortitude, too. Bravery takes a lot of forms, physical being just one, and a particularly unappreciated brand of it is social courage, which is the courage to to risk your place in the society you move in.
About 10 minutes after Collins came out in Sports Illustrated magazine on Monday, the chorus of approval he received was equal to a holiday parade. The White House saluted him, and former president Bill Clinton issued a statement of congratulations. Messages of support came from fellow players such as Steve Nash, who gave him “maximum respect” on Twitter. All of which bordered on over-congratulations and provoked Freedom Center fellow Ben Shapiro to the killjoy observation: “Collins is a hero? Our standard for heroism has dropped quite a bit since Normandy.”
But physical heroism and the moral kind don’t always go together — the Confederacy proved that. If you are tempted to ask how much guts it took for Collins to come out, you can answer that question by simply asking yourself another one:
If it was so easy, then why had no one done it before?
True, this wasn’t securing a beachhead, but when the first keystroke of his announcement — “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. I’m also gay.” — hit the Internet, Collins broke a barrier. Before that sentence, the reception a gay NBA player would get from his peers and the public was a chilly, dark pool of unknowns. The decision entailed, among other things, surrendering his privacy, risking the disaffection and disapproval of his family, subjecting himself to flinching awkwardness from friends and teammates, and potentially, harming his livelihood.
Washington Wizards management could pat itself on the back for being “proud” of Collins on Monday, but before that all Collins had to go on for an example were the headlines from the NFL Scouting combine, where some team executives asked draftees if they liked girls. The truth is, there are general managers who will quietly shy from Collins. Just as there are places where he will encounter purse-lipped distaste and judgment of those who hate-the-sin-but-love-the-sinner, and threatened haters who will want to beat the snot out of him for looking at them.
The main thing Collins did by coming out, to borrow a neat phrase from former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, was to make “the impossible seem inevitable in retrospect.” Before Collins, out-ness was the third rail for male pro athletes. It was a boundary, with no-trespassing signs posted. A male athlete couldn’t come out because it would be an Achilles’ heel, a weakness, a vulnerability. It would destabilize the locker room, and everyone would think he was soft as a fern.
Collins has now completely judo-flipped that stigma and stereotype. Gay isn’t weak, it’s strong — just look at him. And look at his record: He’s played on a half-dozen teams and appeared in the playoffs nine times in 11 years, and has a reputation as one of the best locker room guys in the league.
The lateness of the male pro leagues on this subject is striking; women athletes have been coming out for 30 years. One of the reasons Collins decided to make his announcement was that he wanted to declaw the outers, those who might force him out of the closet for prurience or their own purposes, as Billie Jean King was forced out in 1981. She returned to her hotel room one day to find messages covering the door, and knew in that instant she had been outed and her life wouldn’t be the same. In the space of 24 hours she lost every endorsement she had, an estimated $2 million worth, and never recovered financially.
It no longer costs an athlete millions to be gay, and they are no longer subject to blackmail, because the Billie Jean Kings, Martina Navratilovas, Sheryl Swoopes and Brittney Griners have taken the poison out of the issue with a steady drumbeat of grace and intelligence in public. This is the line that Collins now joins. He is an indispensable link in the chain, and in trying to put a finger on what, if anything, is heroic about his announcement, there it is. It lies in the simple unselfish recognition that somebody needed to move this issue for male athletes. Someone had to step forward so others could follow. “Openness may not completely disarm prejudice,” Collins writes, “but it’s a good place to start.”
Before, Collins expressed his sexual politics through secret gestures, like wearing No.98 for Matthew Shepard, tied to a fence and slain for being gay in 1998. It’s interesting that Collins seems to have found his courage in moving to Washington this season. In February, he visited the Martin Luther King monument, and in March he followed the Supreme Court arguments for and against same-sex marriage. The combination of the two seems to have clarified something for him. “Here was a chance to be heard and I couldn’t say a thing,” he writes. It felt like cowardice to him. And he couldn’t live with it.
Is Collins a hero? King would likely have said yes. “Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles,” he said. “Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances. Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it. Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?”
Collins didn’t play it safe. He found the inner resolution to go forward — and in doing so made it safer for others.
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/
More Wizards and NBA coverage: