By Gregory Segal
At the beginning of his landmark essay in Sports Illustrated, NBA Center Jason Collins writes, “I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
With these words, Collins acknowledges the powerful impact his coming out will have. As he suggests in this quotation, this decision reaches beyond simply paving the way for other gay athletes in major American team sports. In fact, Collins’ announcement will likely reverberate in American politics by bringing the marriage equality debate to the sports world. By altering people’s perceptions of homosexuality, public opinion with likely move in favor of marriage equality.
Before diving into the impact of Collins’ announcement, it is important to connect his essay to the current political debate. In his article in Sports Illustrated, he writes, “The strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage. Less than three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future.” Not only is Collins announcing that he is gay, he is tying his story into the larger debate over marriage equality. He himself forges a connection between his announcement and current political discourse.
While marriage equality may be one of the hottest topics in the news in recent months, not all people may be in tune with this discussion. Unlike the news, following sports is seen as both entertainment and an activity that defies boundaries of political views or party. As a result, the content of sports programming holds tremendous potential to shape public opinion. Enter Jason Collins, who has brought the issue of marriage equality to the sports world. After his announcement, “The Gay Athlete” found its way onto the cover of Sports Illustrated, while ESPN featured wall-to-wall coverage of Collins, along with other news outlets. As a result of the story’s emergence in the sports world, people will be exposed to new perspectives on marriage equality.
Collins himself presents an opportunity to challenge traditional stereotypes of homosexuality. As a fourteen-year NBA veteran, Collins is a hard-working role player known for being an excellent teammate. The impact of this reality is substantial. First and foremost, as he himself describes, “I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I’ve always been an aggressive player, even in high school.” By making people question their perceptions of homosexuality, it is more difficult to separate between groups, which may lead people to begin to favor marriage equality.
The outpouring of support for Collins by fellow NBA figures is vital. For instance, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers described Collins as “…a pro’s pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite ‘team’ players [that] I have ever coached.” NBA superstar Kobe Bryant also voiced his support, saying to E! “I think him coming out was really brave. As his peers we have to support him, just rally around him and hopefully everybody else comes out and be themselves in who they are.” Public acceptance of Collins and his message by other prominent NBA personalities may influence how people see the issue. By serving as models in support of a gay athlete, other professionals may bring new dimensions to people’s opinions of marriage equality. At the same time, it also suggests that political opinions of prominent athletes will begin to take on more weight, adding a new element to a player’s public persona.
The nature of Collins’s story could help people develop a personal connection to the issue. An April 26 article by Peter Grier in the Christian Science Monitor suggests this: “The more personal gay rights appear to Americans, the more support for it seems to go.” Collins’s story offers an intimate account of life as a gay person, which may lead people to reshape how they think about the marriage equality debate.
Only several weeks after Collins’ announcement, it is too soon to know the full impact his announcement will have. On one hand, it may be a pivotal moment moving the country toward equality regardless of one’s sexual orientation, or it may only be a blip in a larger movement until a more high profile player comes out. Regardless, the fact that President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and former President Bill Clinton have all openly supported Collins seems to indicate a revolutionary new dynamic of the sports world influencing national political debate.
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