Jason Collins has played in the NBA for 13 seasons and he has averaged 3.6 points per game on 41% shooting and 3.8 rebounds per game. The seven footer has played for six different teams in the last six years, including a second go-around with the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets. I bet you didn’t even know who he was, even if you’re a basketball fan, until April 29, 2013.
That’s the day that Collins came out as a homosexual, becoming the first open, active person in sports, disputably. Since then, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park, received phone calls from the President, and he was invited to the State of the Union by the First Lady. He has returned to the NBA after signing a 10 day contract with the Nets, and his jersey is somehow the current top seller in the league. The media attention itself has been much.
Maybe because of the Brooklyn parallels, but he has been hailed as this generation’s Jackie Robinson by the talking heads on ESPN and MSNBC by becoming the first openly gay player in the NBA.
Yup, there are plenty in the media that have gone on to compare Collins’ coming out to Jack Roosevelt Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Honestly, this comparison is really silly, and downright insulting to Robinson. It brings down everything Robinson went through and stood for quite a bit. Yes, Collins has had plenty of courage to come out and try to play in the NBA, and it is very significant, but his experiences aren’t that similar to Robinson’s.
It’s one thing if Collins came out in the 1980s or even the 1990s, but this is the 21st Century, and we as a society in the western world have become more accepting of gay people. Collins’ revelation has been applauded everywhere from Kobe Bryant to George Takei. The media has covered him positively and his return to the NBA was a top story on SportsCenter for days. But let me ask: How much is Collins REALLY contributing to the LGBT movement by just coming out and playing in the NBA?
Jackie Robinson hit .311 in a ten year career in Major League Baseball, winning NL MVP in 1949. He helped the Dodgers win their only World Series championship in Brooklyn in 1955. He could have played even longer in the big leagues, but he, like every other African American player, was outright BANNED from playing because of a gentlemen’s agreement. Collins has been nothing more than a career scrub who has played for six different teams. His numbers make Kwame Brown’s look like Shaquille O’Neal’s.
Maybe you think their respective career numbers don’t really matter as much, and you may be right. But the other problem is this: Jackie Robinson faced discrimination that was very, very real at the height of the Jim Crow era. Despite being an All-American in several sports at UCLA and serving in the military in World War II, Robinson was, at first, denied to play in Major League Baseball, like every African. His entry into the game was very controversial. Fans would spit on him, shout slurs at him, send him death threats, and that was just at the ballpark. Throughout the country, he wasn’t even allowed to stay in hotels or dine with his team. His own teammates petitioned to Leo Durocher and Branch Rickey to get him off the team or request a trade for themselves. Many of the teams, particularly the Philadelphia Phillies, threatened to refuse to take the field.
Just watch last year’s film 42, starring Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey. It may not be totally accurate, but it’s a great depiction of what America and baseball were like in 1947.
Jason Collins has come out in a time where LGBT people have become more accepted. Yes, there certainly is homophobia in this country, as we’ve seen time and time again, but it isn’t the level it used to be. The times, they are a-changing. Nobody in the NBA has stopped Collins from continuing his career. You’ll find a lot of sports fans that will not consider a player’s sexuality a big deal. Yes, there certainly are those bigots out there, many who will throw their slurs at him. But most fans are more concerned if a person can play ball. Collins can’t, as you see by his career numbers.
If he was any better of a player than he is, he probably would have signed with a team before now. The fact that he is a marginal player at best was the reason why teams didn’t sign him for seven months, not homophobia. He has been accepted in his locker room and embraced by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, his teammates in Boston and now in Brooklyn. The First Lady invited him to Capitol Hill. The Red Sox had him throw out the first ball. His jersey is the top seller in the NBA!
The real story should be just how he has been accepted, and that is reflective on how our country has progressed in the last 20-30 years. But he is not Jackie Robinson because he has not gone through what Robinson went through, not even close.
In order for LGBT to make an turning impact on sports, they have to be a star. If Robinson was a marginal player, he would have been out of the league after a few years. The fact that he became an all-time great player was one of the biggest reasons baseball and in fact the entire country began to change in the 40s and 50s. Jason Collins is not that guy, a true star athlete coming out would really change things.
If you really want to make comparisons to Jackie Robinson, look to the NFL, where homophobia is certainly alive amongst teams. The Missouri defensive end Michael Sam could be that guy, as we’ve already seen questions of how his outing will affect locker rooms. Like Collins, he has been supported by his peers, the media, the elite, and many others. If he blossoms into a star, he, not Jason Collins, could very well be the guy who becomes this generation’s Jackie Robinson. His success in the NFL would be the true turning point in sports.