On Sunday night Jason Collins made history as the first openly gay professional athlete to participate in one of North America’s four major professional sports leagues. Collins signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets, reuniting him with the team that drafted him. Checking into the game to token applause with 10:28 remaining in the second quarter, Collins did exactly what he was signed to do: grab rebounds, set screens, and be a general nuisance on defense.
Nets GM Billy King said in a statement, "The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision". This sounds about right - unlike most professions, in professional sports, performance is unequivocally paramount. As long as your production outweighs your baggage, you’ll always be able to find a job... and as soon as that shift happens, you're gone. Remember how quickly Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson went from the Pro Bowl to unemployable? The top players on a roster are given leeway that the players at the end of the bench aren't. Bill Belichick put Brandon Spikes on IR earlier this year for being late for practice during a bye week - think that happens to Brady?
Jason Collins presents little risk to the Nets. They have 10 days to decide if he can help them or not. If he can, they extend the deal for another 10 days or the remainder of the season. That’s all it comes down too.
The notion that the locker room cares about their teammates' personal lives more than winning is a myth. You routinely see players of deeply religious backgrounds play with borderline (or actual) criminals and never hear an issue about it, especially if they're winning. From as young as they can remember, pro athletes are taught to support teammates and that they will support you; it's that bond that allows individuals to come together as a single unit in a team sport. During the Miami Dolphins' Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal, you frequently heard teammates defend Incognito's actions. As the media and general population crushed the ‘meathead bully’, teammates went out of their way to advocate for him.
Jason Collins became a symbol last night, and it was a historic event for the gay community. But Jason Collins isn’t breaking down any barriers; he is just the first athlete with the criteria who's been willing to walk through the door.
When Collins first announced he was gay in Sports Illustrated last May, many praised him as the Jackie Robinson of our generation as we lined up to congratulate ourselves on how tolerant we’ve become as a society. The Robinson comparison isn’t really accurate; when the MLB colour barrier was broken, blacks and whites used separate washrooms, attended different schools, and the whole process was met with a barrage of hate at every step. Now, if he'd signed in Phoenix, that would be another story - the Arizona state legislature recently passed a bill that would allow business owners to refuse services to gay people based on religious beliefs.
The way things worked out, though, Collins steps onto the court to unanimous applause and praise, and that's not likely to change. If you watch TV on any Western network long enough, you’ll see a gay character or gay actor/actress, and if you listen to the radio long enough you're going to hear a song by a gay artist. All of us have gone to school with, worked with, or are related to someone that is gay. How many people could say that when Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field for the Dodgers?
Both athletes got their opportunity because they could help their team win. Collins' new Russian boss hails from a country whose anti-gay laws have been all over the news lately, but obviously any concerns Mikhael Prokhorov himself may have (if any) about homosexuals weren't great enough to dissuade him from hiring one. Obviously there are different degrees involved, though; Branch Rickey saw an asset worth the risk in Robinson a legendary athlete and Hall of Famer, whereas Collins is an NBA journeyman looking to extend what’s left of his career and wouldn’t be getting this chance if he were 2-3 inches shorter.
The wildcard in all of this is the fans. If we’ve learned anything from the actions of fans over the years, it's that watching sports can sometimes bring out the worst in people. Social media has created an ongoing powder keg as people hide behind keyboards and touch-screen phones waiting, just waiting for someone to say ‘that thing’. It can be anyone from anywhere - one comment and we can never look away and it transforms into ‘look at what they said’. Skip Bayless has made a career out of being that guy.
What happens then? How are irrational sports fans going to react in the 15 seconds it takes to fire off a tweet or post on a message board? Does it have anything to do with winning basketball games?
This story says more about sports media than it does about the sport itself; it gives the talking heads something to gas bag about that isn’t the normal sports babble. Jason Collins might have opened doors last night, but, thankfully, the doors weren’t locked - he was just the first person willing to turn the handle and walk in. Professional teams will always want the best players available - regardless of nationality, religion or sexual orientation, there will always be employment for those with the right skills to serve their employers' interests - namely, winning.