NBA ready for an openly gay player?

How the league and its fans will respond to Jason Collins after his announcement

Originally Published: April 29, 2013
ESPN.com

Jason Collins, an NBA veteran of 12 years, became the first active male player in a major American sports league to announce that he is gay, doing so in a personal essay Monday in Sports Illustrated. Numerous current players, including Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, applauded his decision. Will the rest of the league show the same acceptance? We ask a few longtime league-watchers.


1. What was your reaction upon hearing the news?


Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: (1) Happy that Jason Collins can live his life to its full potential -- that's no small thing. Just ask around. (2) Ecstatic that one of the last sectors of American public life that's been inhospitable for gay men became less so. (3) Once I read Collins' story, I became proud that such a strong, laudable and funny guy is leading the way.

Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: A mixture of surprise and relief. Surprise because I never would have guessed an active player would come out of the closet now; relief because you probably couldn't have picked a more eloquent speaker than Jason Collins. In that way, he is the perfect ambassador for gay rights in professional team sports.

Ramona Shelburne, ESPNLosAngeles.com: Having known Jason and his brother, Jarron, since all of our freshman years at Stanford, I was actually pretty surprised. I never would've guessed Jason was gay. But the second that thought went through my head, I stopped myself. Who cares if it's a surprise? I'm just really happy for him, his family and the sports world that he was brave enough to come out in such a beautiful way.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Admiration for a brave, brave dude. Because these announcements are clearly so agonizing for the people who make them, no matter how much love and support fellow players show on Twitter. Just go back and read or listen to some of the raw emotion former U.S. national soccer team winger Robbie Rogers shared when he made a similar announcement in February. As much as many of us wish these stories didn't overwhelm the news cycle when they hit, it's a huge, huge, HUGE deal for the person making the announcement.

David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: My first reaction? Yeah!! It is an honor to watch a pioneer as it happens. My second reaction? I thought about all the immature, primitive, hateful coaches I have come across who suggested someone was gay if they played soft. Collins made a great living being rough, tough, thick-skinned -- exactly the opposite of what those coaches always assumed. I can't wait to see how they respond.


2. Do you expect Jason Collins to play in the NBA next season?


Arnovitz: Had you posed this question 24 hours ago without present context, I'd probably say it was 60-40. A big post defender who can set "pancake" screens is still a worthwhile guy to have around, especially if he's as well-thought of as Collins. There are likely a few teams who will pass on him because they fear the unknown, but probably a few others who would celebrate the opportunity to employ him.

Elhassan: Tough to say, but not because of this announcement. If you had asked me 24 hours ago, I would have wavered between yes and no. Collins is a great teammate, smart player and hard worker, but his days of being a productive rotation player are behind him. As a locker room influence on veteran's minimum, he is a tremendous asset. I don't think his sexuality will play a part in his signing in probably 85 percent of markets (there are a couple that have conservative fan bases and sponsors that might pause), but I do think his playing ability will. If he were an All-Star caliber player, the answer would unequivocally be "yes."

Shelburne: Yes. If anything I think there are going to be several teams that would make a point of bringing him in as a show of support. There's always going to be a market for a good defensive big man. It's why Collins has always had a job in the NBA, despite limited athleticism and offensive skills. He's a smart, savvy veteran who knows how to play the game and a good addition to the end of any bench.

Stein: Yup. Totally. It's inevitable that the masses will assume he's being boycotted because of his sexual orientation if he doesn't have a new contract by the time training camp starts, but I'm telling you that won't happen. The reality is that Collins is still a proven third center in a league that has a shortage of competent big men. He will resurface next season for sure and quite possibly with the Wizards again. Or a contending team that needs an extra big. I like the way one GM put it when I asked him the same question: "It's the same as whatever the chances were before the announcement." Expect to see Collins back in the league next season, then.

Thorpe: I'd say it's 50/50. He'll get his chances but his game is not really NBA-caliber anymore. If the GM brings in better, younger candidates, my guess is he would get cut. But at some point, I expect a playoff team in need of a big body to add him by season's end.


3. If he plays, do you expect Collins to have difficulty with teammates?


Arnovitz: I don't expect Collins to have difficulty with anyone. The question is whether teammates have difficulty with him. The answer is that, sure, there will be teammates who are uncomfortable with sharing a locker room with a gay man. Some will express that sentiment to varying degrees while others will keep it private. Eventually, everyone will get over it.

Elhassan: Overall, no. There will always be a few in the league who will be outspoken and lash back out of ignorance, religious conviction, or a combination thereof, and there might be a few guys who will be quietly uncomfortable. But by and large, most players already know someone in their personal lives who is gay: a family member, a classmate, perhaps even a teammate. The NBA locker room is, for the most part, a family-type atmosphere, and the majority of players will be accepting of Collins. It also helps that he is one of the most well-liked and well-respected players in the entire league.

Shelburne: No. The NBA is a far more tolerant place than people realize. There's some immaturity in the locker room, but in my experience covering the league I really believe its players are some of the most worldly in sports. Loud, public shows of support from superstars like Kobe Bryant -- who broke his Twitter exile to tweet a message of support for Collins on Monday -- should set the right tone for the rest of the league and its players.

Stein: As in a large number of teammates? No. A teammate or two? An opponent or two? Yes. NBA players are some of the most worldly athletes you'll find, but hate and intolerance still lurk everywhere. Problems will inevitably arise.

Thorpe: Not likely. It's comforting to know that hate has a very small place in the NBA. There are some guys who will think the wrong thing, but peer pressure will likely keep them quiet. The majority of NBA players are focused on their career and the success of their team, not to mention their own life, problems, challenges, etc.


4. If he plays, do you expect Collins to have difficulty with fans?


Arnovitz: Collins has the fortitude to deal with ugly fans and, in arenas that seat 19,000 people, catcalls from the least enlightened in a crowd tend to pierce through the noise. Over time, those epithets will fade and cranky fans will be calling gay players the same ridiculous, mean-spirited and occasionally funny names they call straight players.

Elhassan: Unfortunately, yes. The days of the "witty" heckler (like famous Washington Bullets super-fan Robin Ficker) are long gone, and for some fans, the mixture of high-priced seats and alcohol gives them "license" to yell some of the most outlandish slander to players, regardless of sexual orientation. There will be knuckleheads who will pick on Collins for being different, and it will be the responsibility of arena security to handle situations swiftly. But it also falls on other level-headed fans to police their own and make it clear that such behavior is not acceptable.

Shelburne: Unfortunately, yes. While I think the majority of America is very accepting and tolerant of homosexuality now, you are always going to get some ignorant fans who hide behind the cover of anonymity in the stands and in chat rooms. It could be uncomfortable at times, but that's as far as it'll go. Collins can take it.

Stein: I imagine anyone in arenas who dares to say something profane will be dealt with swiftly. Twitter, though, is another matter. It's going to take a lot of strength to tune out what awaits Collins in the Twitterverse. A lot.

Thorpe: More than teammates, yes. The pack mentality suggests there will be some young men who will drink too much and then yell something stupid, at some point anyway. But I'd expect teammates and even someone from the other team to come to Collins' defense. It's a tight fraternity -- mostly young, black men who are playing basketball for a lucrative living. They watch out for each other, root for each other, and in this case, will stand up for their brother. It will be great to see that happen, just as we are seeing the support already rolling in.


5. Do you think that pro sports is a welcoming place for gay athletes?


Arnovitz: Baby steps, but it's a lot more welcoming today than it was this time last year. Pretty soon, there will be two openly gay athletes in North American team sports. Then three, then four. At some point in our lifetime, such a disclosure from a player will be less consequential than where they played their college ball.

Elhassan: Overall, pro sports are as welcoming as any other mainstream business: you have intolerant people, you have those who are openly welcoming, and you have those who haven't really thought about it until it affected their lives. I think of all the major team sports, the NBA is the most welcoming for change and diversity. Obviously other sports -- such as the WNBA and individual sports like golf and tennis -- are ahead of the curve when it comes to addressing sexual orientation, but I hope Collins coming out will serve as a harbinger for more acceptance across the board.

Shelburne: Certain sports are more welcoming than others. Basketball and football, for example, have already proven to be very tolerant and open-minded. I don't know that you can say the same for other sports, but that's just my opinion from being around the baseball clubhouses and soccer locker rooms. It'll be interesting to see how this news is received around the sports world.

Stein: I want to believe that the NBA is. And now the whole league has a chance to prove it. But the mere fact that it's taken so long for an active player to make this sort of disclosure, after John Amaechi did so in 2007 as a retired player, tells you that we've got a long way to go. Sad but true.

Thorpe: Not pro sports. I don't know if the NFL and MLB are on the same page as the NBA. The NBA has its problems, but lacking leadership is not one of them. David Stern has stood tall on this issue, and some of his superstars are already following. After Magic Johnson contracted HIV, sexuality is no longer something players like to speak about; most of them like to keep private. Collins being gay does not change that at all. These players want to be known for what they do on the court far more than off it, unless they are shooting commercials and movies.