A year-and-a-half ago, I wrote a piece for New York magazine called "The Last Closet," in which I chronicled the "gayest sports summer ever," when Charles Barkley showed his support for a potential gay player, Michael Irvin was on the cover of Out magazine supporting his gay brother and baseball teams started making "It Gets Better" videos. The piece talked about the changing attitudes in the world of sports -- particularly in regards to the corporate community, which was starting to consider homophobia bad business -- and how circumstances were conspiring for the first openly gay professional athlete in one of the four major North American sports. It was obvious it was going to happen soon.
The environment seemed so welcoming that you wondered if one could improve one's public standing with such an announcement. Jim Buzinski of OutSports mentioned something fascinating to me in an interview for that story that I hadn't considered. "You know," he said, "whoever comes out first is going to have so much support it's gonna be tough for a team to cut him, even if he stinks." John Amaechi, the former NBA player who came out when his career was over, echoed the sentiment: "I came out three years after finishing a reasonably average career, and everybody freaked out. Imagine if I had been good."
Well, history has borne the story out. When Jason Collins told the world he was gay from the cover of Sports Illustrated earlier this week, he was embraced by just about everyone, from Kobe Bryant to Carmelo Anthony to David Stern to Bill Clinton. There were a couple of religious dissenters (as the story predicted) and a couple of idiotic dissenters, but on the whole, this has been nothing but a positive for Collins.
Which reminded me of one of the initial story's more fanciful conceits. Spinning off Buzinski's idea that it would be difficult for a team to get rid of a player who had such positive publicity after coming out, I posited a wacky, Juwanna Mann-esque comedy in which a straight player had to pretend to be gay to keep his career alive. All sorts of loopy hijinks could ensue. Seems like a perfect role for a Wayans brother, or Craig Robinson, if he lost a bunch of weight.
Now, of course Collins' situation is nothing like that whatsoever. (Though if it were, it might have been of some comfort to his ex-fiancee, expertly profiled yesterday by ESPN's Rick Reilly). But I love that it could be. I love that the theory was right, that Collins is a more popular, more beloved, more marketable athlete today than he was Sunday afternoon.
Some skeptics of Collins' announcement have criticized him for merely seeking publicity, for being a mediocre player trying to enhance his profile through a splash announcement, getting on the cover of a national magazine for this when he'd never be able to for his player. To which I say: Fantastic, right? The idea that this has been so good for him, already, is the best signifier of how much progress we have made.
It's also worth remembering that Collins is a lot better player than he's being given credit for. ESPN's Tom Haberstroh wrote a terrific piece yesterday encouraging us to look past Collins' surface stats and look at his actual impact on the court. Collins' teams, Haberstroh writes, are consistently better when he is on the court than when he is not. That's not something you have to tell Dwight Howard, who was famously stifled by Collins during that Orlando-Atlanta playoff series a couple of years ago. For all the talk about Collins' free agency and the speculation about which team will make the leap to sign him, it's tough to see someone not doing it. He's a good investment at the veteran's minimum already, never mind the marketing opportunities.
But those marketing opportunities will be there. At least for a while, anyway, at least until we get tired of him. And that'll be great too.
It's going to be even better when the next gay athlete comes out. You realize that the next person who does it is going to be criticized for being old news? For trying to copycat the reaction to Collins' announcement? We're going to have a male professional athlete from one of the four major North American sports announce that he's gay, and everyone's going to accuse him of being opportunistic, just trying to capitalize on all the positive vibes, of being old news. How awesome is that? A big athlete will come out and we will all yawn. That's gonna be terrific. That's gonna be what this was all about in the first place.
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