Earlier this week, journeyman basketball player Jason Collins revealed he was gay, the first active male player in a major American team sport to do so. In a first-person piece in Sports Illustrated, he wrote: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
That’s applause-worthy. And Collins was greeted almost universally with kudos. It was striking to me, idly flipping channels, how positive and receptive the coverage was: Anderson Cooper and Andrew Sullivan – to whom Cooper came out of the closet earlier this year – spent half their time effusively praising his writing. Collins’ high-school coach made the cable rounds. Over on resolutely flyover-state Good Morning America – whose weatherman casually dropped the news not long ago that he was getting married and to a man – the anchors took time for a round of cheers.
The mainstream media’s collective high-five is evidence, if the polling isn’t proof enough, of the seisimic shift in public opinion on homosexuality. Indeed, in this environment, those not in full-throated support seemed out-of-touch. Howard Kurtz, for one, ran a wanna-be gotcha column that chided Collins for not revealing that he’d been engaged (in fact, he had in his SI piece) that was as egregious for its errors as for Kurtz’s dark-ages assumption that someone who is gay couldn’t have once had – or tried to have – feelings for a woman. Kurtz tried to rewrite his way through the controversy, but eventually the Daily Beast retracted the whole damn thing (and, it seems, Kurtz, too.)
For all of this, there’s something that makes me a bit uneasy about the response, especially when put into context. Female sports luminaries like Martina Navratilova have been out for years, and when a bona fide star of women’s basketball revealed she was gay a few weeks ago, it was greeted with a collective shrug. (I hope I won’t seem uncharitable by noting Collins’ pro ball career as benchsitter.) Why is that? Is it because, as The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta argues, female athletes are seen as tomboys and from tomboy, it’s not a far stretch to lesbian? Maybe, although I have trouble with Franke-Ruta’s notion that to be a woman and an athlete is to be “nonconformist” – little girls are behind America’s soccer craze and women throng distance races. I’ve got firmer biceps than most guys I know. To be a layabout and female almost seems the exception.
But if you buy that double standard – that it’s less acceptable to come out as a man – then I find the flipside uncomfortable, too: Is it possible we see Collins’ behaviour as heroic because we’re used to viewing male athletes through that lens? Men who play professional sports are stars; women who do are, with few exceptions, hardly household names.
None of this is to diminish Collins’ bravery in laying himself bare. Quite the contrary. I just think that maybe Brittney Griner ought to have gotten some high fives, too.