Matt Vautour: Jason Collins' coming out not the finish line
In this photo provided by ABC, NBA basketball veteran Jason Collins, left, poses for a photo with television journalist George Stephanopoulos, Monday, April 29, 2013, in Los Angeles. In a first-person article posted Monday on Sports Illustrated's website, Collins became the first active player in one of four major U.S. professional sports leagues to come out as gay. He participated in an exclusive interview with Stephanopoulos, which is scheduled to air on Good Morning America on Tuesday. (AP Photo/ABC, Eric McCandless) Purchase photo reprints »
Jason Collins’ revelation Monday was historic. As the first openly gay male athlete in major American professional team sports, he’ll rightly be celebrated as a role model on a landmark day.
His first-person article in Sports Illustrated ended years of speculation about when someone would inevitably break that barrier. Because it finally happened, many pundits were heralding Monday as some kind of finish line in the gay rights movement.
It’s a big step, one of the biggest, in fact, in a country that grows more accepting and embracing every week. But there’s more ground to be covered and more milestones to be achieved. Collins got the ball in motion.
Like racism, homophobia isn’t likely to ever be eradicated, but here are some milestones to reach, both for Collins and the pioneers who follow him:
Collins signing his next contract — In the SI article, Collins said he wants to keep playing in the NBA. But the free agent journeyman center averaged 1.1 points and 1.6 rebounds in 10.1 minutes per game this season.
Those aren’t numbers that will have suitors lining up with contract offers.
Collins proclaimed himself willing and ready to handle the added attention, potential heckling and other concerns he expected to face as a trailblazer in the league. If he doesn’t get signed, that burden will fall to someone else.
The motives of NBA front offices will be under a microscope. If Collins doesn’t get signed, observers will scrutinize every big man who gets picked up wondering if a team chose a less talented straight player, rather than Collins. If he is signed, some will wonder if his presence will be a publicity stunt from an attention-seeking front office. It would help all involved if he plays well.
The next one/wave — It’ll be interesting to see how soon Collins has company in what is now a one-man club. Will the positive reaction he received upon his announcement be enough to encourage athletes, who had considered coming out, to take that step?
Former Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayabadejo, a vocal proponent for gay rights in and out of sports, said in earlier April that four NFL players were ready to come out together. Could they be next?
The first openly gay professional baseball, football, hockey and, to a lesser extent, American soccer player, won’t get the same attention for their revelations that Collins did, but they’ll certainly be pioneers in their own right facing many of the same challenges.
First openly gay all-star — While Collins’ revelation is correctly being celebrated, he’s a role player. When opposing fans are heckling, the backup center isn’t the target.
It’ll be different when the star quarterback or point guard is gay. That’s when the fans are going to heckle, and the potential for ugliness increases.
It’s more than that too. Will fans vote for that player on all-star ballots or buy his replica jersey? Will companies hire him as a spokesman?
How much will TMZ and its brethren report on the love life and romantic exploits of the first gay star?
First gay football player in the Southeastern Conference — Before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, he played college football at UCLA in 1939. The SEC didn’t have its first African-American football player until 1967. LSU and Ole Miss didn’t integrate until 1972.
Change can move at a glacial pace in the South. Tolerance and acceptance of gays and lesbians haven’t developed quickly in much of the SEC’s footprint.
But love of football trumps almost everything else in that area. If a gay player is helping one of that league’s revered programs win games, it could be a watershed moment toward changing views.
Acceptance of openly gay women’s coaches — A dirty little secret in women’s college athletics is the considerable homophobia that sits just below the surface.
Most sports fans are aware and unfazed by the presence of lesbians in women’s college, pro and Olympic athletics. When Baylor star Brittney Griner announced that she was lesbian earlier this month, it received little fanfare or surprise nationally.
But it wasn’t long ago that former Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland, who was forced to resign in 2007, was defiantly proud of her program’s no lesbian stance. While they aren’t as vocal about it, there are several schools that still follow Portland’s lead.
Sherri Murrell, of Portland State, is the only openly gay Division I women’s basketball coach, as many of her colleagues hide or suppress their sexual preference to avoid or limit negative recruiting.
An ESPN Magazine story in 2011 detailed just how rampant it was for coaches to use a head or assistant coach’s assumed sexual preference to scare a player or her parents away from that program.
A gay head coach of a men’s professional team — It took 19 years after Robinson for a professional team to hire a black head coach. (The Boston Celtics named Bill Russell coach in 1966.)
Jason Collins seems like a well-respected intelligent man. Maybe someday down the road, he’ll add first gay head coach to his status as a pioneer.
Matt Vautour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GazetteUMass.