Friday, August 22, 2014

Catching up with: Openly gay NBA center Jason Collins -- since coming out, his life is "exponentially better"


And we catch up with the St. Louis Rams' Michael Sam

Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins, now 35, says he doesn't know yet what's in store for next season.

"[New York] is where the Stonewall riots happened. Flash-forward to when I entered a game and got a standing ovation when I took the court for my team. As a society we're on the right path."
-- Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins,
to the Washington Blade's Michael K. Lavers

by Ken

In April 2013, I wrote a post called "Still-active NBA center Jason Collins comes out -- is this the 'breakthrough' we've been waiting for?" Looking back at the hullabaloo that surrounded Jason's self-outing in Sports Illustrated, it seems all the more unfortunate that it was such a big deal, because it has proved to be so small a deal for basketball. Jason wound up signing with the Brooklyn Nets and playing out the 2013-14 season, including the playoffs (at least as far into the playoffs as the Nets got), and as he tells Max Blau in an interview for the website Creative Loafing Atlanta:
There was a big media reaction with cameras for my first game. But after about two weeks, it died down. I would have a game and no one would ask me a question. It was literally back to business as usual. Female athletes have been doing this for years and are still playing. Male athletes have some catching up to do being out there. But that story can only be written about in so many ways before it goes back to being about the sport.
Basketball seems amazingly unchanged, or maybe not so amazingly, because really what was supposed to happen? The lurking fear -- or perhaps hope, on the part of people who really wanted it to be a problem -- was disaster in the locker room, the end of team cohesiveness. Which was probably always foolish. Can there really be a locker room anywhere in professional sports where players aren't aware that they're dressing with gay teammates?

It's too soon to say that basketball or any of the other big-time sports have definitively gotten past this ancient taboo, but what happened this season with Jason Collins seems to me nothing but good for basketball. And there's no question that it's been good for Jason.

The Washington Blade's Michael K. Lavers begins his newly published interview with Jason (actually conducted last month) this way:
Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins was at an event in D.C. in June when someone approached him and said his story as the first openly gay man to actively play for a major professional sports team helped him repair his relationship with his mother.

“I’ve heard other stories along those same lines,” Collins told the Washington Blade last month during an interview. “It’s just really great to see when you have an impact.”

Collins said his life is “exponentially better” since he came out in a Sports Illustrated op-ed in April 2013.
Jason recalls the enthusiastic response of Nets fans:
Collins received a standing ovation from the fans inside the Barclays Center when he took the court during his first playoff game.

“The atmosphere was incredible,” he told the Blade. “Even my first game back during the regular season when I entered the game and getting a standing ovation from the crowd in Brooklyn is something that I will never forget. This amazing moment shows the character of the fans in Brooklyn.”
I don't think it's that hard to imagine how liberating it has been for Jason to live honestly with himself, his teammates, and the public. In the Creative Loafing Atlanta interview, asked by Max Blau about a local connection, he offers a poignant recollection of life in the closet:
In your article, you discuss how the 2011 NBA lockout was a catalyst for later coming out. You played for the Atlanta Hawks during that time. What role did Atlanta play in that process?

I lived Downtown one year and Midtown for two years. Midtown has a very cool LGBT environment. I was living in one of those apartment buildings and would always look out the window and think, "It sure looks like fun down there!" [laughs] I used to go running through Piedmont Park a lot. On the way back to where I lived, I'd go past restaurants and see LGBT people enjoying things like Sunday brunch. Seeing positive examples of people living their lives. It did help knowing that life might eventually be my life.
Jason is also crystal clear about the leg up on issues of inequality a person gets by being both black and gay:
Atlanta is a city with a vibrant LGBT community. But Georgia still has a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in place. Did you keep tabs on LGBT rights while you lived here? If so, how did you feel about it?

I was more than aware. I had a "Welcome to the South" moment. I was on the ninth green at the Chastain Park golf course in Buckhead and a Caucasian young man said the "n-word" to me. Not only was I aware of LGBT issues, but also racial [discrimination]. We've advanced a long way in this country from when my grandmother grew up in upstate Louisiana under Jim Crow laws. We still have a lot of work to do as far as overcoming racial issues. They're now going on in other parts of the country. It's going on in Missouri right now. That's part of the reason why I talk about being black and gay. There are constant reminders [of both] with regards to the equality in this country.
Jason has been doing a lot of traveling, and talking, and listening. He was happy to provide encouragement and advice to football defensive lineman Eric Sams, who went through his own highly publicized coming out in February before the NFL draft. The Blade's Michael Lavers writes:
Collins is among those with whom Sam spoke before coming out.

The Nets center told the Blade he was “very proud” of the acceptance speech the former University of Missouri defensive end gave when he accepted an award during ESPN’s annual ESPY Awards that took place in Los Angeles last month.

“I continue to tell him just how proud of him I am,” said Collins, noting he met Sam’s partner and his parents at the ESPY Awards. “It’s really cool to see how everything is progressing.”
As for his future in basketball, as a free agent again (the Nets don't seem to have much interest in bringing him back, but there are usually jobs in the NBA for role-playing big men, especially once the season is under way), Jason tells Max Blau:
I'm honestly stuck right now. I told myself I'd make a decision in mid-September about whether I want to keep playing or move on to other passions in my life. I'm still in shape if I decide to give basketball one more go.
In the Blade interview, Jason underscores his admiration for the female stars like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova who helped pave the way for "out" athletes.
“With athletes like myself and Robbie Rogers and Michael Sam, we’re showing athletes that we’re adding a few pages to that playbook,” said Collins, noting male athletes often come out after they retire. “It’s something that female athletes have been doing for years, whether it be Martina Navratilova all the way up to Brittney Griner.”
"Right now," Jason tells Max Blau,
I'm really just enjoying my summer. I went to London for the first time for Wimbledon. I'm also enjoying my time going around the country talking about civil rights issues. I'm going out there and giving people a face, not just an abstract concept, to break down prejudices, misconceptions, and stereotypes.


USA Today caption: "Green Bay Packers quarterback Scott Tolzien (16) gets a pass away before getting hit by St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam (96) during the second half at Edward Jones Dome."

One of the story lines of the NFL preseason has been the Rams' seventh-round draft choice's battle to make the team. As USA Today's Tom Pelissero reports today:
Halfway through the preseason, rookie defensive end Michael Sam's primary hurdle for making the St. Louis Rams' roster hasn't changed.

It's a numbers game with one of the NFL's most talented defensive lines, and Sam — the seventh-round draft pick from Missouri who is trying to become the league's first openly gay player — remains a third-stringer entering Saturday's third exhibition at Cleveland.

But when the final cuts come Aug. 30, former Rams vice president of player personnel Tony Softli believes Sam will survive — if he shows some versatility over the next two games to contribute on special teams.

"Michael Sam has shown enough rushing the passer — and that's what he is, he's a DPR, he's a designated pass rusher — that he can get off and beat a tackle on the upfield shoulder. He can spin and come underneath," Softli told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday.

"He's got to prove he can do it on special teams, and I think that's going to be his (way) to make this team."
But what's interesting here is that, apart from the reference to Sam "trying to become the league's first openly gay player," the discussion is entirely about football, as of course it should be.

The Washington Post's Mark Maske makes this point nicely in "For Michael Sam, a victory even if cut from St. Louis Rams roster":
Amid all of the attention, Sam’s story is now approaching the next watershed moment, one that surfaces questions that will resonate far beyond the St. Louis locker room: What if Sam doesn’t make the Rams roster? What happens if he is cut?

Like any seventh-round draft pick, Sam is far from a lock to start the season as one of the 53 names on the Rams’ active roster. His attempt to survive cut-down day is further complicated by the Rams’ talent-rich corps of defensive linemen, led by Robert Quinn and Chris Long. But while he may fall short of securing a roster spot when rosters are trimmed for the final time Aug. 30, from a certain perspective, Sam may have already succeeded. By turning a media frenzy into business-as-usual, by fixing the preseason narrative solely on Michael Sam the football player, both Sam and the Rams have already earned an important victory for sporting social rights.
Maske talked to an assortment of observes with "inside football" credentials, who agreed that coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams front office will make their roster decisions based entirely on football considerations. Which seems further evidence that at least in this matter, as we heard Jason Collins say at the top of this post: "As a society we're on the right path."

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