Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Who Exactly Is This Society Of Whom He Speaks?

Journeyman NBA center Jason Collins has come out, and sports figures everywhere are saluting his bold declaration:  "I’m a 34-year-old N.B.A. center. I’m black and I'm gay." We noticed the first two.

Collins' admission- yes, it is an admission, given the testosterone-infused league- that he is gay gave rise to the latest tweet mania, including from colleagues in the league.  Baron Davis: "The time has come. Max respect."  Steve Nash: "I am so proud of my bro."  Pau Gasol: "It's amazing to see such courage from jason collins in today"s annuncement.  Myself and the NBA family supports (sic) you Jason."  Damien Wilkins: "Very proud of and happy for one of the coolest and most down to earth guys I know." Al Horford: "Jason Collins was a complete professional and great teammate. I support him in his decision and wish him all the best in the future."  Manu Ginobili: "All my respect & support for Jason Collins. Thanks to his courage perhaps someday an athlete's sexual preference will be irrelevant. Congrats."

NBA Commissioner David Stern, who himself issued a statement of support on behalf of the league, no doubt was heartened by the tolerance exhibited by these and other players.  Far less noticed, however, will be that across-the-board, these celebrities avoided taking themselves or their sport too seriously.   They expressed admiration and respect with no little or no hint of condescension toward fans, the public, or to any individual who might disagree with their perspective.

Oddly, the one glaring exception was the successful NBA coach and underrated former point guard Glenn Anton "Doc" Rivers, who issued a statement reading

I am extremely happy and proud of Jason Collin (sic). He’s a pro’s pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite “team” players I have ever coached. If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society who has to learn tolerance. One of my favorite sayings is, I am who I am, are whom we are, can be what I want to be its not up to you, it’s just me being me.

No, sorry, Doc: if teammates were "the first to accept," Jason Collins would not have had to be the first player in a major professional sport (basketball, football, baseball, hockey) to reveal that he is gay.  Others would have done it already and Rivers would not be able to make the obscene comparison to Jackie Robinson.  Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Phil Sheridan, while not referring to Rivers, writes 

Robinson didn't get to play 12 years in the major leagues, proving himself as a person and a player and a teammate, before revealing that he was a black man. His shattering of the color barrier was an act of personal courage on his part and moral fortitude on the part of Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Robinson, Rickey, and the Dodgers were boldly ahead of history. It was 16 years after Robinson stepped on a major-league field that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I Have a Dream" speech. Baseball, and sports in general, were 20 years ahead of the rest of America (and 30 or 40 years ahead of parts of it).

"It will be society who has to learn tolerance," says Rivers.  Who is that? Congressional Republicans? President Obama?  Rivers' relatives, neighbors, or close friends?  Preferring to whitewash "society,"  he doesn't say.  Had Rivers specified any one person or any group, he would have shown a little of the courage himself he and other professional athletes and others find in Jason Collins.  Sheridan observes

As personally courageous as Collins is for coming out as a gay man in the NBA, the truth is that sports is way behind the rest of the country on this one...

It turns out the real world was way ahead of the sports world on this, but the sports world isn't as far behind as Collins, or other gay players, might have feared.

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