Until a Sunday in late February, an openly gay man had not played in any major American professional sport. It seemed that society’s evolving standards stopped at the turnstiles of sports stadiums. American pro sports was a place where coaches called their players ‘fucking fairies’ and players called referees ‘f*ggots’.
So when Jason Collins stepped onto a basketball court in Los Angeles wearing a Brooklyn Nets jersey as an openly gay man, it was celebrated as progress. The supportive response from players and coaches and league executives was seen as confirmation of sport catching up. But we should be more hesitant before talking about homophobia in the NBA in the past tense.
Collins came out in an article published in Sports Illustrated last April. “I’m a 34-year-old NBA centre. I’m black. And I’m gay,” he wrote.
He told the story of growing up with his brother – who followed him to Stanford and then into the NBA – and how, at the age of 12, he began to notice differences between them. “I couldn’t identify with his attraction to girls.”
Even so, “I thought I needed to marry a woman and raise kids with her,” Collins observed. “I kept telling myself the sky was red, but I always knew it was blue.”
It was surprisingly open, candid, public coming out for someone who has since resisted calls to become an activist and refused the title of history-maker. That night, he got a call from an unknown number. “Jason, this is the White House. Can you hold for the President?”
Obama told Collins he was proud of him. So did Oprah, when Collins appeared on her show around the time Sports Illustrated hit stands. But then Oprah started asking questions about his childhood, and about when he first knew.
“Were you, as a little boy, interested in boy things?” she began. “My hairdresser, Andre, for example, when he was six years old, used to comb his sister’s Barbie doll’s hair. So, were you ‘sensitive’?”
Let’s be clear: that is a question about his masculinity, not his sexuality. But the two, especially in pro sports, are so often conflated. In even the most supportive reactions to Collins coming out, and to Collins playing his first game of NBA basketball as an openly gay man, the idea of homosexuality as effeminate, as ‘sensitive’, has been present. Those who cheered Collins’ coming out have been quick to tell us that he may be gay, but he’s not ‘soft’.
Dwyane Wade, interviewed on the day Collins put on a Nets jersey, told a reporter that, “He’s one of those tough veterans… One thing I know about him is that he fouled very hard.” Kevin Durant described Collins as “a physical, physical center.” Carmelo said Collins had “big balls to do that.”
In the celebration of Jason Collins, and in marking the distance that America has marched on gay rights, it seems that we have forgotten that the ‘past’ that we want to bury isn’t very long ago, and its attitudes are still with us.
Of the images that have shamed gay sportsmen into silence, the ‘locker room terror’ is probably the most insidious. And though it is not being phrased with Hardaway-like bluntness, the current elite of the NBA has been less than subtle in implying that Collins ‘isn’t like that’.
“Always a professional,” tweeted Jamal Crawford. Trevor Ariza called him “a hell of a professional”. “He is the consummate professional,” said Doc Rivers. No other professional NBA player gets called “professional”, certainly not this much. It’s because no other NBA player is openly gay.
“Professional” is a reassurance – to themselves or to the country – that Collins may be gay, but he doesn’t mess around in the showers. And it’s a reassurance we should treat with contempt.