Friday, May 10, 2013

Regular Basketball Guy as Gay Athlete

The success of inclusion occurs not when heroes are needed but when regular folks can live a prosaic life while being true to themselves. Commentators have been wondering for awhile when a male professional player would step forward as a gay man to challenge the silent don’t ask don’t tell taboo surrounding homosexuality and men’ professional sports. Well Jason Collins stepped forward.

I believe the most important aspect of his revelation lies in how normal he is as an athlete and person.

Jason Collins is a journeyman professional basketball player with a gift for collective defense. He graduated from Stanford and played for 12 years in the NBA for six teams garnering 3.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and .5 blocks per game. By all measures he had a yeoman career as a successful professional career respected as a teammate and contributor. It helps that he is 7’ 255 pounds. Celebration and support erupted in many quarters, but to me the real success here lies in exactly his actions felt normal and natural extensions of his self and a moment in time.

Greg Antony mentioned “he never could score really well.” Charles also agreed. To me this represents the triumph and success of his coming out. Inclusion wins when regular guys can be honest about their identity and still ply their trade.

The movie 42 reminds us of the staggering heroic stoicism and incredible talent that Jackie Robinson needed to break the color line in American professional sports. He faced fanatical and brutal abuse as well as life threatening violence for years. Yet he co-existed with Thurgood Marshall and the NCAA assault upon separate but equal as well as Truman’s integration of the armed services. Robinson’s heroic stature and superstar status did not stand alone but as an aspect of a movement of heroes.

The gay rights struggle benefitted from unknown men and women risking jobs and safety for three decades. Courageous men and women outed themselves to challenge friends, family and professional world and remind people of the humanity of gay people. Magnificent gay athletes and superstars lead the battle in sports where Americans play out so many narratives of identity, acceptance and inclusion or exclusion.

Pathfinder tennis superstars such as Billy Jean King and the magnificent Martina Navratilova came out as players. Women tennis players created a social space and earned an acceptance by the fan based. Their courage and success along with strident and courageous action across society by many unsung persons forged a social space and expectations that permitted women basketball and soccer players to follow professionally and in college. Women’s sports has achieved opening, tolerance and acceptance in many domains along with a critical mass of athletes coming out. When college’s best female player Britteny Griner of Baylor announced her sexual orientation it rippled but did not swamp her life or career possibilities. However, I do not want ever to underemphasize the continuing costs, abuse and persecution that gay persons and players can experience such as Griner’s personal letter on her decision narrates, as she says “it takes a lot of courage to come out."

The big three American sports—men’s baseball, basketball & football—dominate American sports consciousness and fan identification. Here no gay players existed, none.

The irony with women’s athletes announcing that they are lesbian lies in how it matches social stereotypes of masculine or dyke lesbians. Most women’s athletics plays below the media radar except on special events like World Cup, NCAA tournament or Wimbledon. The hostility and reaction was muted by the lower profile and the fit with existing stereotypes. It is reaching a critical mass in locker rooms and in fan bases that helped and gained from society’s own changing mores.

Men’s sports, however, stood as a powerful bastion against that change. Americans deploy sports narratives to support the profoundest American myths. Sports narratives also permit criticism of them and become metaphors for struggles around class, race and ethnicity much as the symbolically fraught 42 does.

Sports stands tall as the stronghold of manly virtue and prowess. Athletic struggle personifies:  physical courage, physical strength and sacrifice, toughness in face of physical and psychological pain, overcovercoming adversity, and conquering competition.

Women storming this bastion represented part of an ongoing assault against disabling female stereotypes that demeaned and praised a limited and narrow range of female virtues. Success in sports authorized women to claim highly valued virtues. They could then redefine them and make them their own.

Masculine stereotypes of gay men focused not on the hyper-masculinity of the motorcycle chain crowd but the sissy drag queen feminine attributes of being a gay male. Coaches and players scourge each other with endless gay slurs as attacks and prods on players to man up and play with courage and tenacity. If gay athletes existed, they would challenge the monopoly of “real” men on athletic virtues as profoundly as women did. In some ways it posed a more dangerous threat because it came from within.

The world of male competition and locker rooms formed a fraternity based upon trust and competition. The locker room served as a haven for men to relax, be themselves, be accepted and share victory as well as wounds of defeat. It provided a moral clarity and proving ground. Their private fraternity had its own form of love and sharing and respect. If the love shared by winning athletic teams became threatened by a self-conscious erotic component, it might rip away the haven and safety of the team and locker room.

Most professional athletes will admit to two things. First, they know there are gay athletes; second, they have never played with one. When Jason Collins revealed how even his twin brother did not know he was gay nor his fiancé, he revealed the power and costs of concealment. He could not even share his identity and capacity for love with his twin brother.

The battle for gay success and acceptances just as for black and female acceptance in sports required super stars to display immense skill and courage. They played to the old adage that black players or women had to work harder and better just to be considered equal to the white or male players.

What interests me about Jason Collins’ admission is that he did so as a “regular” guy player. He was not and never was a superstar, but he played the game well. For twelve years players, coaches fans have seen him prove his talent and worth.

Now the fans, players and coaches of six cities and teams know that this 7 foot 255 pound regular guy was a gay player. But no one was assaulted, no one in the showers was oogled, no one distrusted him and everyone knew he had their back on the court, in practice and in life.

The revelation reveals that the virtues of an athlete and teammate can be lived and proven by a gay player. Not a superstar, not a heroic figure, but a regular guy a veteran in the parlance doing his job, taking care of business and having everyone’s back.

He simply got tired of living a lie and sought to be “liberated” and to love freely and openly. He is at that point in his career that he may or may not have a contract next year but his disclosure marked a point of reference for sport, but just perhaps more reliable and deep.

Robbie Rogers is a regular successful soccer player like Collins. He plays in a below the radar sport in the MSL Soccer league but quit the sport in turmoil last February after coming out as gay. Now he has returned to play again for the LA Galaxy. He  described  the experience of returning to the field of soccer after coming out as "normal." Here as in the NBA the Seattle Times summarized it "it turns one big deal...into a smaller story for the next openly gay athlete.

You don’t have to be Jackie Robinson now to be a gay player in sports.

The proven existence of a good guy and fellow trusted player in locker rooms strikes at a deeper identity issue. The macho culture of sports extends prowess to sport and women. Admired athletes succeeded as predators with women and groupies. The disquiet of having a gay fellow teammate makes the male predators possible prey in their own sanctuary. Being a naked prey can be incredibly unsettling from being common predators celebrating their sexual excellence.

Scores of players have tweeted their support because they know him. More interesting the black community which has a complex relation with homosexuality in politics, united and rose up in the sport. Greg Antony of ESPN has talked insightfully about how black players must be for inclusion and must be for tolerance. Charles Barkley seconded him on national TV.

At the same time the hierarchy of the NBA came out squarely in his favor with David Stern tweeting support along with Michelle Obama.

His action, his experience and his respect gave credence to his action but it also provided a window of opportunity for the men in his sport to support him, for black leaders to resolutely support him even if carefully pointing out he is not Jackie Robinson. Finally it permitted senior political leaders to announce their support of him and inclusion and tolerance.

He said simply ‘I hope I can make it easier for those who follow.” Not only is he doing this, but his action will permit other male players to support and create a safer place in the world of mens’ sports. He could be one with Brittney Griner who said about combatting gay prejudice, “It’s my job now to, I hope, be a light who inspires others.”

This will not be easy or without conflict. A strong vein of evangelical Christianity threads through American male sport. A number of Muslims play. Both groups of players will struggle with the “sin” of homosexuals against the reality of a trusted teammate who excels and has their back. Many players will struggle with this personally and religiously, but these patterns are broken not just with strong and courageous actions of individuals but with unyielding support from leaders and bosses and coaches and commissioners. Jackie Robinson broke the barriers, his dignity, courage and skill earned a place for others, but Branch Rickey created the conditions and power to support the quest.

Well that’s the point. He is not a superhero or star. He’s a committed professional player who is respected, earned a good income and banged with the best of them while carving out a seven year career with one team and then a journeyman’s life with five other teams. He earned respect, trust and a salary. Now all he asks is the right to be free to love.

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