On April 29, Jason Collins made American history by becoming the first active athlete in the four major American sports (NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL) to openly announce that he is gay. However, much to the chagrin of gay and lesbian activists, Collins’ announcement, despite being the first of its kind, will fail to elicit positive, lasting change if no other athletes also come out.
In the short term, Collins has received encouragement from both fellow athletes and political figures. Michelle Obama recently tweeted: “So proud of you, Jason Collins! This is a huge step forward for our country. We’ve got your back! -mo.” Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers also tweeted: “Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others.” Kenneth Faried of the Denver Nuggets similarly tweeted support, and Robbie Rogers, an American soccer player who also announced that he was gay, felt so emboldened by Collins’s admission that he tweeted “I feel a movement coming.”
Collins’ coming out has also faced a wave of disapproval. Chris Broussard, a basketball analyst for ESPN, said on an episode of “Outside of Lines” that he opposed Collins “openly living in unrepentant sin.” Broussard added, “I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ.” Mike Wallace, a wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins, echoed similar sentiments, tweeting “All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys.” He later removed his post.
Despite Collins’ bravery in his announcement, he will ultimately prove unsuccessful in encouraging fans and athletes to be more tolerant of gay athletes. Collins suffers from an epidemic that plagues all athletes who are not superstars in their respective sports – a lack of visibility. Aside from his announcement, Collins’ career has been largely unremarkable. In his 12-year career, he has played for six different teams and averaged only 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in 20.8 minutes per game, statistics that many NBA executives would find disappointing for a player that was drafted with the 18th overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft.
The athlete who will initiate an age of tolerance for gay athletes must himself be a superstar. The athletes that have to this point announced being gay (Kwame Harris, Wade Davis, Esera Tuaolo, Roy Simmons, Dave Kopay, all of the NFL and, recently, John Amaechi in the NBA) have all been forgettable. Even for sports aficionados, many of these names elicit the same questions: Who are they? Who did they play for, and when did they play?
Homosexuality cannot be allowed to live on the fringe of sports culture. However, to date, being openly gay and being a good athlete have been mutually exclusive. No openly gay athlete has been inducted to any Hall of Fame across any sport. No gay athlete has matched the prominence of Lebron James, Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter, or other straight athletes. As such, the lack of any lasting success by gay athletes has made their careers – and their cause – at best a lesser movement in sports that has garnered social acceptance but has failed to contribute significantly to athletic success, which is for fans and coaches alike the ultimate tool for measuring an athlete.
Only until a widely successful athlete admits to being gay will fans, coaches and executives understand that being gay and being a stellar athlete can be, in fact, mutually inclusive. Only then will fans and coaches alike accept that gay athletes are not detriments to their team’s performance. However, until that time, the stigma against gay athletes will remain, a stigma that suggests that one must be straight to be good at sports.