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Believe it or not, the decision Jason Collins spent his adult lifetime wrestling with and the announcement that was unprecedented in major American team sports might be the easy elements of a whirlwind Monday in the NBA. Even though common sense, David Stern's wishes and federal anti-discrimination laws say that Collins' just-announced homosexuality should not play a part in where and if he'll play in the NBA next season, reality says otherwise. The free agency of a player who averaged 0.7 points per game for a team that finished a long par-5 away from the playoffs will be followed as closely as the decisions of Dwight Howard and Chris Paul this summer. Teams have to weigh the limited contributions of the player against the extraordinary attention he'll generate. Who knows, some teams might actually want to sign him because of the historic aspects and a desire to be part of the progress. And even if teammates have no qualms with adding a gay player to the roster, they'd all be brought along into the story, forced to become commentators on this still-touchy subject. Some are better qualified than others. I place a great priority on the culture that successful teams strive to cultivate. It's possible culture has never been more relevant in the NBA than with this potential transaction. The story gets more difficult from here because now it's out of the capable hands of Collins. Collins is thoughtful and courageous, an unbeatable combination. Unfortunately, those dual adjectives don't apply to everyone in our society. And society just inherited this story. Collins did his part. I believe the majority of people are either happy for him or indifferent. Unfortunately, the minority's voices will seem amplified in the early stages. And I think the reaction will help determine how long the gap is until the next gay player comes out of the closet.
I actually wouldn't be surprised at all if we see another gay NBA player come out between now and the start of next season. The reaction to Collins has been, as many expected, overwhelmingly positive, and it would be quite the gesture to not leave Collins alone in what he's about to experience next season. That is, of course, if there is a next season for him. While I agree that teams do have to weigh Collins' limited contribution versus the unavoidable attention he and his team will receive, that storyline will eventually die down, and probably rather quickly. Honestly, how many questions can you ask about the subject? All that would leave you with is a 7-footer who can defend, set quality screens and pick up any offensive or defensive schemes quickly. While Collins doesn't produce much, or even play much, there aren't that many players quite like him. I can also envision a progressive-minded owner signing Collins not only to utilize his abilities but also to make a statement. Because the worst statement that could possibly be made is if Collins isn't signed. Then you'd have a handful of people who assume it happened because he was gay. I doubt that'll happen. But looking forward, the question now becomes just how accepting the sports community is. How ready is the NBA, or any sports league, for that matter, for an All-Star-caliber player who comes out? Because fair or unfair, it would be on a different scale than the Collins story. I think of Gareth Thomas, the Welsh rugby player who came out in 2009, in this scenario. He was a captain and an icon in his country, which he assumed wouldn't accept him as gay. He was, to his own surprise, embraced after he told his compelling life story. But even he told the British newspaper The Sun that it would be difficult if he were facing constant insults while playing. "I wouldn't want to represent my team every week if I knew that 20,000 people were going to be abusing me," he said. Would that be the case for an All-Star level player in the NBA?
I'll go a step further: Are we ready for a gay player to win All-Star MVP honors and bring his partner out on the court while he accepts the award? As much as Americans love to brag about their country's liberties, that can change when they see someone exercise those rights in front of their faces. (I'm thinking of the backlash Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf faced when he didn't want to stand with his teammates for the national anthem.) It's one of the reasons Jason Collins chose to come out at this time; we have to deal with this issue only in the abstract right now. If he made this announcement during the season, his mere presence in the locker room, on the bench and on the court would be a story. He didn't think that would be fair to his teammates. Back to your All-Star point: In the long run, an All-Star who happened to be gay would make it less of an issue. That's because he'd give us plenty of other material to discuss besides his sexual orientation. He would be winning games, hitting incredible shots, making his private life a secondary or even tertiary part of the story. Jason Collins' skill set won't allow him to distinguish himself in different ways. None of his plays will make the cut on "SportsCenter" highlights. He's not going to have plays drawn up for him to hit game-winning shots. He's stuck as The Gay Player. It will be less and less of a story, but the label won't change. Even an abundance of openly gay players at all levels, representative of the gay population in our country, wouldn't change the story completely. The true test would come if we had an openly gay coach. It might be easy for guys in the league to say they would play with a gay teammate. Would they find it as simple to play for a gay coach? Would a team feel comfortable hiring him? That's something that hasn't been discussed but needs to be if we're going to carry this conversation forward. Jason Collins' bold move is a great first step toward inclusion. We remain a long way from equality.
I gotta say, the issue of gay male athletes in major American team sports has been a prominent topic several times over my 13-year career, but not once have I considered the potential gay coach angle. Just as I'm sure there are more gay players in the league than Collins, I'm sure there have been gay coaches, assistant or head coaches, in the league. But that dynamic would be quite different, and probably more difficult for some players to adjust to. In that scenario, I would imagine the first such coach would have to have been very successful, perhaps have even won a title, for him to fully earn the unquestioned respect from his players without any backlash. Given there are so few with that kind of cachet, the odds are pretty slim that'll happen any time soon. The idea does, however, remind me that the NBA might be the best American pro league for this to have happened first. For starters, there are simply fewer players in the NBA compared with the NFL, MLB or NHL. Also, the league under David Stern has regularly been ahead of the curve on so many issues, whether sports-related or in a societal context, that it's not surprising that Collins felt comfortable enough to open up. The NHL would be an interesting study, if only to see how the heavy international influence would affect the conversation. I'm guessing it would also be overwhelmingly positive, because Canada and several European countries have already legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
Now you've brought in same-sex marriage, which is a logical extension of this topic. Collins touched on it in his Sports Illustrated story, and I'm sure he'll be asked to weigh in with his opinion going forward. Yes, we've had straight players address it, but the argument is incomplete unless we hear from those whom any new legislation would directly affect. This should be about rights and opportunities. It shouldn't be about sexual orientation. The saddest part of this story is that Collins felt compelled to explain who he is and why he feels the way he does. No one should ever have to do that. Opinions require explanations. Feelings should be allowed to exist on their own. Somehow, the way one person feels initiated a national talkfest this week. Somehow, in all of the celebration and persecution, we skipped over the fact that what we're really talking about here is love and attraction ... and since when have they ever been easy to define or debate?
This right here, J.A., the conversation alone, it's what's most important as we look ahead. The more this subject is discussed, the more educated everyone will be on it, the difficulties that come with it and the truths and mythologies associated with it. For that, Collins has already done an incredible service to everyone in the sports community and far beyond. People will still make their mistakes -- and there will be plenty who still refuse to fully accept not only being openly gay in sports, but homosexuality in general -- but that's all part of growth. For now, Collins will be the active athlete who will have to respond when any of those issues crop up. But now that he has broken through this barrier, perhaps there will be others who fight the status quo and join him in a courageous act of honesty.