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Thursday, May 30, 2013
Updated: June 5, 4:42 PM ET
The Parable of Jackie Robinson

By William Jelani Cobb
ESPN The Magazine

Jackie Robinson at Ebbets Field in 1947
The Parable of Jackie is that a wrongheaded majority can be set right with one figure.

SOMEWHERE IN THE zeitgeist just after Jason Collins became a hashtag but not yet a hero, we seized on the idea that this was our 21st century Jackie Robinson moment. Seeking to contextualize Collins: Gay-American, African-American, of late Celtic- and Wizard-American, the Dodgers second baseman became seemingly the instant referent of choice by cable news announcers, half-attentive observers and the truest authority in such matters: Twitter. Captured in broad strokes, the story of Jason Collins' emergence as the first openly gay athlete in the NBA made the comparison easy: a lone figure doing battle with calcified prejudices; a quiet man who is unwillingly reborn as a metaphor, an individual whose very presence changes the contours of a sport and therefore a nation. When you've got the president of the NAACP tweeting that "98" is the new "42" and the U.S. president phoning his support, there's a good chance you've made the moral all-star squad.

Robinson was chosen to integrate baseball partly because of his talent but also because of his solid upbringing and military service, his UCLA education -- an easy parallel to Collins' Stanford education and comfortable background (Collins' seven-foot muscled frame standing in for Robinson's diction as an implied antidote to a stereotype). Even the choreography of the moment -- midway through the tenure of a black president, the Supreme Court poised to rule on marriage equality -- made it hard for even the driest-eyed cynic not to think of Collins as some cultural heir to Robinson. But the most basic question here is not whether this qualifies as a Jackie Robinson moment, but why we want another in the first place.

For if we recalled precisely what Jackie Robinson's "moment" was, we wouldn't want to live through another one much less wish that kind of hazing on someone as young, decent and optimistic as Jason Collins. None of us would sentence him to the death threats and indignities, the vampiric assaults on the spirit that Robinson endured. His postage stamp captures him in his youthful grace, but people of a certain age recall his death at age 53, white-haired and easily mistaken for a man 20 years older -- an alumnus of an academy of bad behavior that we scarcely recall now. (It wasn't hard to recognize that the stress he was subjected to in those early days knocked years off his life.)

If we must persist in this search for the next Jackie Robinson, we should keep in mind that he'll look a lot more like AC Milan forward Mario Balotelli than Jason Collins. Weeks earlier a game had to be stopped due to jeering fans shouting racist remarks at Balotelli. And he is not our only Jackie Robinson; black players make up 5 percent of European soccer leagues, all of them playing through multiple Jackie Robinson moments every time they set foot on the field. The point here being that simply being the first -- or the 50th -- isn't the thing that matters. It's not moments, it's movements that matter most. Which makes the basic question here not whether Collins' announcement qualifies as a Jackie Robinson moment, but why we've become so attached to the convenient cliché that sports are a metaphor for our most entrenched social concerns. Certainly, we need look no further than the nearest baseball stadium to recognize that's not the case. Fifty-eight years after Roberto Clemente debuted in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, 24 percent of major league baseball is Latino. For years now it's been possible to organize MLB All-Star teams not only by American and National League players but also by those who speak Spanish and everybody else. Yet you'd be hard-pressed to think of ways in which this infusion of talent influences the way we think of the current immigration debate or the complex position of Latinos in the broader society.

And yet No. 42 remains the most convenient trope. We crave another Robinson moment precisely because we think it doesn't ask anything difficult of us, when the opposite is true. The Parable of Jackie is presented not only as a case study in the triumph of dignity over ignorance but also is seen as evidence that a wrongheaded majority can learn the error of its ways from a single minority. That logic undergirds the film "42", which stars Branch Rickey's conscience with Robinson in a fine supporting role. As Wesley Morris points out on Grantland.com, the film can't help but seem as if it was conceived as a metaphor for the acceptance of gay athletes. We see Phillies manager Ben Chapman hurling the N-word as if it's a signal to his pitcher every time Robinson steps to the plate. It's a vile moment, but the film needs him and his unchecked redneck id to underscore the dividing line Robinson's heroism laid bare. But it also lets audiences off easy. Chapman's bigotry is revolting and difficult to watch, but it was the "kinder, gentler" racism of those around him that was actually the load-bearing wall for Jim Crow (see "Mad Men"). Sixty-six years after he integrated baseball, it's deceptively easy to look at Jackie Robinson as a harbinger of change. But in 1947, he was simply a man all but orphaned by his country and trying, like millions of other black men in this nation, to do his job despite the opposition of white people. So while Jason Collins does find himself, like Jackie Robinson, at the crossroads of American taboos, his presence highlights not how much we've changed but how far we have yet to go.

So it isn't a Jackie moment, but neither is it a Martin, Malcolm, Medgar or any other noble sacrificial moment we might glean from an Af-Am history syllabus. This is a Jason Collins moment. And asking ourselves exactly what that is requires more messiness than can be addressed in 140 characters. It's the qualifiers that tell the tale: first openly gay active male athlete in a major American sport. Each of these terms dismisses the cultural heavy lifting done by Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and most recently Brittney Griner. Amid the clutch of clumsy congratulations, straight observers never really had to ask why it mattered so much that a man come out, why in a major sport, why a virtual lineage of gay female athletes seemed insufficient to the task. When Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in straight sets in 1973, the match was played up as a metaphor for the times -- a rising tide of women who didn't want equality; they wanted, literally in this case, to defeat men at their own game. Among the even less evolved this meant they effectively wanted to be men. Say what you will about evolving attitudes, but the slope-headed, thick-browed thinking of that era is why the response to gay female athletes has, for the past two decades, more or less been, yeah, figures.

It means something that two months before the Collins reveal, 18-year-old Kaitlyn Hunt was kicked off her high school basketball team, expelled from school, arrested and charged with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery of a child 12 to 16 years of age -- felony charges in Florida for dating a 14 year-old fellow player. Here we have a narrative, a young naïf led down the path of gayness by an older basketball player -- and a subtext that this is a hazard due to parents who let their girls play sports in the first place. If we've made less of a stir about lesbian athletes, it's hard to know whether tolerance or ignorance is more responsible: Is it that we're too evolved to care or that we stereotypically assumed it to be the case anyway?

There's an additional set of concerns here. Straight women are not in the habit of beating lesbians to death for violating some core tenet in the ever-shifting code of gender rules. The stakes are different in a world where homosexuality is still understood as an abdication of manhood, where we encounter headlines like GAY MAN SHOT DEAD IN VILLAGE AFTER GUNMAN SHOUTED HOMOPHOBIC SLURS: AUTHORITIES blaring from the home page of the New York Post this spring. Collins operates in an arena where men shower together, where sexual liaisons with female fans are virtually fine-printed into the contract, and where Wilt Chamberlain could claim to have bedded 20,000 women and you actually have to do the math before disbelieving it. Collins implicitly answers the question of what happens when a guy in the locker room says he's playing for the other team and isn't talking about a trade or point-shaving.

We crave another Robinson moment precisely because we think it doesn't ask anything difficult of us, when the opposite is true.

Think back to the point in 1991 when newly diagnosed Magic Johnson was subject to all manner of retroactive sexual calculations, and observers were silently calculating the odds of heterosexual infection with the numerical obsessiveness of an actuary. And recall Karl Malone's saying (as spokesman for a silent quorum of players) he didn't want to play against an HIV-positive athlete. Fast-forward some years and witness the fiasco surrounding the gender-bent Dennis Rodman -- blushed, dyed and highlighted but received with the dismissive benevolence reserved for small children and minstrels. It's in this context that Collins' announcement takes on yet more importance, but, again, that's still not the sum of what's going on here.

In the wake of his announcement, The Wall Street Journal pondered the size of the endorsement windfall Collins might reap as the first openly gay male athlete in a major sport. So eager are we to show we got the point of Robinson's exercise in redemptive suffering that we've asked for a second helping of change. Within two weeks of Collins' announcement, he was slated along with Michelle Obama as a speaker at a Democratic Party LGBT fundraiser for which plates topped out at $32,000 per couple. There's even something to be said about the cynics who saw Collins' self-outing as a ploy to enhance his employment options in the coming season. Sure enough David Stern doesn't want the bad optics of Jason Collins pushed into retirement and critics pondering whether it's because of his sexuality or because his skills have reached their expiration date. That we even care about those kinds of calculations is a statement in itself -- a statement but perhaps still not a movement.

"I'm a 34-year-old center. I'm black. And I'm gay." The last word of that sentence inspired headlines, but the whole thing is worth considering. Given that people presumed Collins was straight but no one ever mistakenly thought he was white, identifying his race would be an odd statement of the obvious were it not for the context. The implication here is that Collins came out not as gay but as black-gay, an altogether more vexing set of concerns, akin to the difference between being poor and being dirt poor.

For those clinging to antique ideas about homosexuality, a seven-foot personal foul machine is the antidote to a stereotype. But another part of this story, the unspoken part, is that Collins is not only a gay athlete who plays against other men, he's a gay man in a sport in which about 80 percent of these men are African-Americans.

It wasn't hard to see life imitate art in the immediate wake of Collins' announcement, as the controversy surrounding Chris Broussard's comments about Collins attested. The point was not that Broussard was right or wrong in fig-leafing bias and providing an inadvertent argument for gay marriage so much as it was that in order to have a Jackie Robinson moment, you kind of need a Ben Chapman one. You need confirmation of the offhanded presumptions that the NBA, as a bastion of black male culture, must necessarily be all the more homophobic. Hence, the tsk-tsk quality to the reprimands like this set piece of racial profiling from The Advocate:

"The African-American community, let alone the sports world, desperately needed an openly gay male, professional player. Thanks to Jason Collins, the hyper-masculine and testosterone-driven milieu that dominates sports might actually begin to loosen its homophobic grip, especially among black athletes."

Or this from the Philly Post:

"Occasional lip service notwithstanding, pro sports in general -- and the NBA in particular -- are a bastion of testosterone-driven heterosexism. What makes the NBA unique is that almost 80 percent of the players are black, and black men are notorious homophobes when it comes to one of their own."

These assumptions sprang forth from the same fount of insight that said that Obama had forfeited the black vote when he came out in support of gay marriage and were unswayed when we witnessed record black turnout last November. In the early 2000s, that kind of indolent thinking launched a hundred headlines and public health paranoia about "down-low" black men living secret gay lives at the same time "Brokeback Mountain" was garnering Oscars. (This was the true subtext to since-fired media critic Howard Kurtz's otherwise weird reference to Collins' not coming clean about having been engaged to a woman.) Those suspicions were confirmed that ambivalent night in 2008 when the nation simultaneously elected its first black president and rejected gay marriage in its most populous state. Immediately, fingers pointed in the direction of California's black voters. Despite the fact that African-Americans are only 6 percent of the state's population. In fairness, this isn't solely a white undertaking -- Tyler Perry has made millions creating morally dubious gay male characters, and Oprah billed her interview with Collins, in part, as one exploring what it means to be black and gay.

Still, it's hard to resist the thought that there's a game of moral gotcha under way here, a novel moment in which whites get to chastise blacks for their bigotry. After all that marching and singing, it implies, we really ought to know better -- as if Westboro Baptist Church were located at the intersection of 125th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. (As if on cue, the febrile-minded Westboro clergy began shouting that the Oklahoma tornado was God's vengeance for Jason Collins' announcement. Given Collins' yearslong struggle with his identity, the presumption is that this news took even God by surprise.)

True enough, there are black people who resent comparisons between the gay rights struggle and the battles to overturn segregation in this country. They aren't the same. But really, they don't have to be. The simple denial of human dignity should be sufficient for us to understand wrong when we see it. It's not so much that homophobia doesn't exist in black America -- of course it does. It's the idea that the moron punctuating his sentences with "no homo" is a representative sample. There was an unenlightened common ground in how blacks and whites thought of Magic Johnson in the early '90s. And when Charles Barkley, the breathing antithesis of political correctness, says he's certain he played with gay athletes, it should be grounds for at least double-checking a few assumptions.

Experience with racism doesn't immunize anyone from narrow-mindedness, but there's a faulty assumption that somehow it should. The only thing more presumptuous than denying someone his freedom is presuming to tell him what to do once he has it. If there's any lesson to be gleaned from the battles fought to make this country an actual democracy, it's that ignorance is its own penalty. Being a black bigot is nothing to aspire toward, but it's certainly no worse than being a white one.

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