A topic that was never discussed in team sports, more specifically in the big-four professional sports leagues. You could call it a sensitive topic, or simply a topic that did not belong in the world of male professional sports as it degrades the masculinity of sport. What happens when one shines light on the topic and starts the conversation? What changes in the world of team sports?
THE CONVERSATION BEGINS
In April 2013, the first active NBA player, Jason Collins, came out publicly with a notably courageous announcement via Sports Illustrated. The conversation that no one wanted to talk about was finally talked about. Though he was a free agent at the time, he was the first active NBA player to come out to the public eye. A conversation that opened up, straight to the point, Collins couldn’t have made it more clear:
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” (Collins, 2013)
As he was entering the final years of his 12-year run as an NBA player, it took a lot for someone to come out of the closet in a professional males sport. Coming from an African-American Christian family, standing at 7 feet tall playing for an American big-four league is not your average stereotype of a homosexual man.
Described by authors, “Collins presented a stark contrast to many culturally constructed stereotypes one would have about a gay athlete: he is a black Christian man who conforms to many of the norms of hegemonic masculinity.” (Bilings, Moscowitz, Rae & Brown-Devlin, 2015)
Social constructs and stereotypes are puzzle pieces that make up the ideal and socially accepted athlete. By identifying your sexual preference as homosexual, it goes against the norms of masculinity and athleticism, it removes a so caled puzzle piece in the picture. Collins proved himself that he was still the same athlete, same player that got drafted 12 years prior to him coming out, his sexual orientation did not define his ability and athleticism.
LOCKER ROOM: WHAT CHANGES?
In his article written for Sports Illustrated Collins said, “The biggest concern seems to be that gay players will behave unprofessionally in the locker room. Believe me, I’ve taken plenty of showers in 12 seasons. My behavior wasn’t an issue before, and it won’t be one now. My conduct won’t change.” (2013)
There’s something about team sports that makes the locker room as private as it is. The topic that was in the dark had finally been put in the spotlighting instilling thoughts of what would happen in the locker room? Collins, a talented man, well-qualified to be in the NBA had been doing the locker room routine for 12 seasons, what more could have changed? Sexual preference does not define one’s ability to play a sport, and more importantly, be part of a male team. For Collins to state that his biggest concern was the locker room goes to show that anything can happen behind closed doors and off-camera: discrimination and exclusion.
Public reactions via news reports and social media were a mixed bag. Celebrities like Kobe Bryant, Ellen DeGeneres expressed their support and applauded Collins for coming out. Even President Barack Obama expressed his support:
“I told him I couldn’t be prouder. You know, one of the extraordinary measures of progress that we’ve seen in this country has been the recognition that the LGBT community deserves full equality, not just partial equality, not just tolerance but a recognition that they’re wholly a part of the American family” (Barack Obama, 2013).
Beyond the public eye, citizens of America were entitled to their own opinion as well. Only a day later, in an NPR opinion piece, Talk of the Nation, Jason Collins is the topic of discussion as host, Neal Conan asks players and coaches to answer “What changes now in your locker room?” (2013). Many listeners applauded Collins for his bravery for coming out and many shared their experiences with fellow gay teammates, sharing that sexual preference doesn’t make any athlete any different and that sports are performance based. One’s sexual preference does not make a difference on their overall statistics, so what is the big deal? One listener, named Frank thought otherwise and that a homosexual player should have their own locker room for the sake of other’s comfort. This sparked many thoughts of analysis. Why does homosexuality define an athlete in a negative light when it comes to male sports? In my opinion, the court, the rink or the playing field is a space where players collectively work together to play a sport. The locker room, in retrospect is the space where individuals can peel away from the sport and be themselves with no judgement.
5 YEARS LATER: WHAT HAS CHANGED?
The issue of Sports Illustrated published nearly five years ago, has opened an ongoing conversation. As Collins stated in his article, coming out in 2003 would be very different than coming out in 2013. Though he remains to be the only NBA player who came out while active in the league, there has been more acceptance and awareness of LGBTQ communities. Months after his Sports Illustrated announcement, Collins teamed up with Nike with their Pro-LGBT #BeTrue collection, a line showing support and donating proceeds to the LGBT Sports Coalition with the goal of ending discrimination amongst athletes. (Evans, 2013). In a recent interview, Collins emphasized he would appreciate to see another athlete to come out, and more athletes be involved in LGBTQ events and step out of their comfort zone. He stated, “‘People still worry about losing their endorsement deals and being shunned in the locker room,’” (Gundran, 2018).
In the world of pro-league sports, consistent LGBTQ support within the organizations has been on a rise. Within the NBA, sports have themed pride nights to advocate awareness and acceptance of communities but also gaining support of a fairly newer demographic. Possibly a smart marketing move, merchandise can be bought in commemoration of Pride month.
The outpour of support of LGBTQ communities and homosexuality in the recent years have changed and are aligned with the gay rights movements that have been occurring in the United States. Legalizing same-sex marriages has allowed this conversation of homosexuality in sports to be less “abnormal” as Jason Collins paved the way by starting the conversation in 2013. Though no active straight players have participated in any parades or major pride events, the support of LGBTQ communities is on a rise. With social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, it allows NBA players to speak their own opinion and voice out their support with hashtags when relevant. Discriminatory homophobic slurs within the NBA come with a fee as Collins mentions how even Kobe Bryant got fined the $50,000. It’s a community that does not tolerate homophobia, and is supportive of homosexuality, but it just doesn’t see enough of it.
Agreeing with Jason Collins, coming out in 2003 would have been very different than coming out in 2013. Seeing how he paved a pivotal moment in sports history with coming out of the closet, it proves that sexual orientation does not change someone’s ability to play a sport, more importantly, love for a sport. Despite backlash of many saying his announcement was irrelevant, as it was towards the end of his career, is still takes a lot to step out of the expectations of masculinity in the world of sports. In team sports, the locker room is a sacred place that many sought to be a safe place. Whether it’s height, weight, race or social orientation, a player who’s there to play the sport, is a player, nothing less, nothing more.
Five years after this monumental article, continuous support and awareness of LGBTQ within male sports is ongoing. This conversation is ongoing. Possibly it may take five to ten more years for another professional athlete to come out. Possibly it’ll be a football player next. Or a hockey player. What matters most is that when this player does so, this player gets to play their 110% on the field, court and rink, and that sexual orientation is looked at as a minuscule feature that defines someone. Similar to someone who has brown eyes, or blond hair, sexual preference does not change someone’s love for the sport.
The conversation will continue to be talked about, thanks to Jason Collins.
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- J100, CMNS 324