In case you missed it, Jason Collins made history this past weekend, becoming the first openly gay athlete to play in one of the four major professional sports. Less than a year after coming out, Collins signed a 10-day contract with his former team, the Brooklyn Nets, stepping onto the court with little fanfare to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the middle of Sunday's game.
Compared to the buzz that has surrounded NFL prospect Michael Sam's coming out in recent weeks, Collins' signing flew under the radar. Many have hailed the quiet nature of the move as a sign of progress — that we've reached a point in our society at which being gay in professional sports is no longer a big deal. ESPN's Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser postured that Sam's spotlight has eclipsed Collins' (even though Sam has yet to actually make an active roster and his recent performance at the NFL Combine disappointed many scouts). “I think it's no big deal and that's exactly the way it should be,” said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, himself no stranger to lending his loud mouth to seemingly innocuous issues.
The Wall Street Journal's Jason Gay terms these naysayers as the “Who Cares” crowd, rightfully noting the hypocrisy of the first group of people who somehow think their laissez-faire attitude toward a gay athlete demonstrates the level of their progressivism rather than their ability to strike a dismissive pose from such position of privilege. (Think Stephen Colbert's brilliant refrain of “I don't see race” — except these people aren't joking.) While a society in which the color of a person's skin or the gender of a person's partner don't matter at all is an admirable ideal to uphold, the reality is that we're quite far from that utopia of tolerance. Insisting otherwise effectively renders the daily struggles experienced by marginalized groups who have yet to achieve full equality and rights.
It's even worse when those who think Collins is no big deal are self-proclaimed liberals and allies than those who just blatantly don't want to confront their own prejudices with a man who defies every homosexual stereotype in the book. (Those people are relics of a time that will be soon forgotten and are quickly finding themselves in the dinosaur minority.) As my friend Meredith Bennett-Smith wrote in her (incredibly brave) coming-out column on Monday, having high-profile role models who happen to be gay might not matter to the current straight community, but can go a long way to helping future generations, gay and straight alike, come to terms with the sexual identities of themselves and their peers. Especially in sports — where the issue of note has shifted from the question of the existence of gay players in the first place to whether they would be accepted in the locker room — examples such as Collins carry particular significance in showing people that both of these questions have been decisively answered.
“In this locker room it wasn't a big deal and it wasn't a distraction,” Collins's Nets teammate Deron Williams said after Sunday's game, while Lakers star Kobe Bryant lauded the “domino effect” that he will have: “There is a kid out there who ... is going to say, 'Jason gave me strength in dark moments to be brave. He gave me courage to step up and accept myself for who I am despite what others might be saying or the public pressures.' ”
The other problem with the idea that Collins doesn't matter is just how purely wrong it is. Even if you've accepted the erroneous premise that we've somehow moved past the need for openly gay athletes to serve as examples of acceptance, Collins' signing by the Nets is particularly of note. Brooklyn is a team that is actually in playoff contention, and decided that a player who happens to be gay could be an integral part of its push to the playoffs. In other words, no one can dismiss the contract as a mere publicity stunt in a liberal city with historic ties to the LGBT cause. The Nets' interest in Collins is about basketball, pure and simple.
And that's how it should be. Collins doesn't need to be a mouthpiece for the cause — he's already done his part in publicly coming out and working his way back to the NBA. The biggest contribution Collins can make to is to let his play on the court speak for itself and earn a permanent spot on the Nets roster for the remainder of this season. He can, and will, still be an advocate, choosing to wear No. 98 in the future in honor of Matthew Shepard, the victim of an anti-gay hate crime in 1998 that spurred a national legislative push to protect gay rights. Demand for the jersey is already high, while the demands on Collins have only just begun.