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SBM Sports: Did ESPN Have it Right in Looking Past Jason Collins?

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What a weekend in pro sports. The NFL Draft came and went. Steph Curry and Nate Robinson owned the NBA Playoffs. The Lakers did the exact opposite of owning the playoffs…and then we got to Monday.

First, the New York Jets made news by releasing Tim Tebow, the most talked about backup in NFL history. A few hours later, Sports Illustrated released their exclusive interview with Jason Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran, who decided to come out of the closet.

I learned about the Collins news first on Twitter. As the reactions and retweets sped up, and the GChats and texts hit my inbox, I started to formulate my reaction to this news. My feelings, in order, were:

“Meh.”

“Good for him, that couldn’t have been easy.”

“Hopefully the Twitter trolls don’t say anything too stupid.” (They did.)

Overall, though, I thought I’d care more. After all, this is the closest thing to an active player that has come out in major pro sports (Collins is currently a free agent). And for years, I thought that would be a big deal, similar in impact to Jackie Robinson crossing the color line in baseball.

Obviously ESPN agreed with this sentiment.

The Collins news wasn’t deemed important enough to preempt the recycled analysis of Tebow’s release or the Lakers’ season ending loss to San Antonio online at ESPN.com. And it took the network nearly an hour to cover it on television. By the airing of the afternoon episode of Sportscenter however, Collins’ coverage was sandwiched between Tebow, the Lakers, and NFL Draft talk. What’s the deal?

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As of 3pm Eastern on ESPN.com, the lead story was the New York Giants’ drafting of a backup quarterback in the fourth round this weekend. Though Collins’ name was a headline off to the right…under Tebow of course. Check out the Yahoo! Sports homepage right around the same time:

RESIZEtebow_over_collins

I think ESPN (and Yahoo! Sports) realized the same thing I did: Jason Collins coming out as the NBA’s first active gay player isn’t as big a deal as it would have been just a few years ago.

Collins’ announcement was important for his personal vindication (as he admitted in the article). He shouldn’t have to feel pressure to live his life according to anyone else’s standards. I’m glad he is free to be himself and I sincerely hope his story gives others the courage to do the same. But has this really moved the needle in sports or pop culture in any lasting way? I doubt it. So why isn’t this as big a deal as many would have predicted?

First, Jason Collins has been a fringe NBA player for years. He’s never averaged more than 6 points or rebounds per game. He’s regarded by league executives and media members as a great teammate and leader, but that doesn’t matter to most fans. How would the casual fan know that anyway? How many Jason Collins headlines have you read before today? It’s safe to say many basketball fans who had heard of him assumed he retired years ago.

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After digesting the initial news and coverage of Collin’s announcement, I believe the first athlete to truly move the discussion of gays in professional sports forward will have one key trait:

His or her legacy must be solidified by exceptional play, not sexual orientation.

Collins earned himself a place in the NBA for over a decade. That’s an achievement very few in pro basketball can claim. But he’ll forever be remembered for today, rather than his 12+ years in the league.

Overall, I think Collins’ greatest triumph will ultimately be personal. He did something that requires courage, and will affect how we see him forever. It won’t change how we see gay athletes however. That’s a big distinction because it means most of the discussion on this topic is still yet to happen. The release of 42 this month was special because it highlighted the contribution Jackie Robinson made to the country’s most important sport at the time. Robinson changed sports forever, which I think a gay athlete will do in the future. A movie like 42 was only possible, though, because Robinson was damn good. His play etched the path for others by increasing acceptance in the sport.

Monday’s announcement, and the resulting (lack of) coverage showed that, while the tide is turning, the leader on this frontier has yet to come forward.

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How did you react to the news? Do you think Collins had a bigger impact than I do? What if Collins was an All Star? Would that change your view on the topic of gays in sports?

Give me your take in the comments below!

Comment(9)

  1. its not a big deal. ESPN deals with real actual sports news, this isn't. Consider if ESPN reported everytime a NBA player gets a new girlfriend

    1. I dunno, I feel like ESPN covers anything tangentially related to sports. Their Boston Marathon coverage, all the athlete legal issues the delve into, and pretty much everything Rick Rielly is allowed to cover fits in that space.

      When you consider their name (ESPN = Entertainment and Sports Programming Network), it opens the door to cover topics like this. They COULD have interrupted their Tebow/Laker coverage much earlier than they did.

  2. Honestly it’s a non story as it stands now he’s out the league, he’s basically John Amaechi. I honestly think the true narrative begins when a man whose name kids wear on their back comes out. This might come up when he inevitably joins the Knicks where big old centers goes to die but even then it’s not exactly gonna be Collinsanity. He set the black blogosphere ablaze but sports wise he’s irrelevant.

  3. I briefly tweeted about this and I essentially feel like this was in the same vein as the Lakers making the playoffs. There's sentimental value in it, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter. For me, I'd consider him "active" if he'd been playing most of the season or on a current roster, not a FA. He played sparingly this year but not enough for even rabid NBA fans even knew he was still in the league at all. So that alone made it a non-story to me.

    It seems like some fans want a major star to come out and say that he's in gay, so that it'll have a widespread, emphatic meaning. But I can't see that ever happening. I don't think any of the marquee players would jeopardize their status as a global brand (considering the NBA isn't insulated to the US like football is). So when people throw out oh Jason Collins is a hero, I don't credit it that way. I give him props for finally having the courage to be himself and to step up as a possible role model for young black gay males who are also athletes. But a hero in terms of the LGBT community as a whole? Nah.
    My recent post What I Wish I Knew Before I Became A Corporate Guy

  4. I def don't think this story should have brought down the internet. I think it's being discussed in our community because…well, we're always turnt up on this topic.

    ESPN did the right thing in not making it the story of the day. And i think people waiting for a megastar to come out will be holding their breath for a long time.

    Now let's wait six months to see what Law and Order SVU comes up with.lol. Let's just hope it's not as terrible as that Chris Brown/Rihanna episode.
    My recent post IAmRichJones: Another great post on site today -&gt; SBM Sports: Did ESPN Have it Right in Looking Past Jason Collins? – SBM <a href="http://t.co/2yX0agLjHW” target=”_blank”>http://t.co/2yX0agLjHW

    1. They already had an episode with a quarterback who was outed. They could just run that episode back with a 7 foot basketball player I guess…it was a decent one, lol.

  5. "It’s safe to say many basketball fans who had heard of him assumed he retired years ago."

    That sure was what I was thinking. Jason Collins is a nobody. I remember every player and their jersey number from the original Dream Team, but I didn't know Collins was still in the league. I couldn't tell you the difference between him and his twin brother (career-wise, obviously they look alike).

    The player has to be somebody for this to have any impact. Let me know if Lebron comes out the closet. Or better yet, let me know if Ron Artest's is [email protected] THAT would be a riveting story! I don't watch reality TV, but I'd definitely watch a [email protected] Metta World Peace reality show. That would make Flavor of Love look like Little House on the Prairie.

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