When the basketball player Jason Collins came out of the closet via a Sports Illustrated cover story on Monday, I was reminded of something I hadn’t thought about since the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell: a lot of straight men are inordinately fixated on locker rooms.
The comments of the online version of the story, which got so hateful that SI.com had to delete them in their entirety, bulged with remarks about showers and towels. “I do not want some guy, a teammate, eyeballing me in the shower!” fretted one hideous talk radio host. Collins himself, in his ghostwritten testimonial, felt obliged to say:
“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.… I’m still a model of discretion.”
All that heterosexual anxiety about the anguish of stripping off with other men must be very exhausting, I should think. But sport is an emotional affair for most Americans (and beyond), and who knows what sort of psychological issues are wrapped up in there.
Many gay writers who praised Collins yesterday are big basketball fans themselves, and I don’t mean to question them. But I myself have no special interest in the glossy corporate spectacle of American sport – last weekend’s obscenely overproduced NFL draft looked, to me, like an outtake from the Hunger Games – and so my reaction to Collins’s coming out has gyrated wildly between profound admiration and deep, deep cynicism. To understand why, I think it helps to break the issues at hand into two: the individual and the corporate, the personal gesture and the machine reaction.
As to Collins’s personal decision to come out, I have nothing but praise and admiration. Professional sport, especially men’s team sport, remains a notoriously homophobic domain, and it takes courage to do what Collins did, even if you do get a Sports Illustrated cover and an interview with Good Morning America in the process. Perhaps you remember Tim Hardaway, the retired point guard who, after a former player came out, proclaimed “I hate gay people, so let it be known,” and then added that if he discovered a gay man on his team he would try to get him fired? Or maybe you heard the interview with the NFL player Chris Culliver, who explained, “I don’t do the gay guys… Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Can’t be in the locker room, man”? (The locker room, always the locker room.)
I don’t underestimate Collins’s bravery in proclaiming his sexuality. Yet is this such an unprecedented moment? “History-making” to use the favorite epithet of many news outlets? It’s nice enough to be reminded that gays too can be seven-foot, highly muscled Übermenschen, although if you went to my intimidatingly gay gym this wouldn’t be news, I assure you, but several male athletes who’ve recently come out should have already made this clear. Matthew Mitcham, the gay Australian diver, won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics (and has also recorded a mean Beyoncé cover). The very butch rugbyman Gareth Thomas made waves when he came out while still playing for Wales. Robbie Rogers, who had 18 caps for the US national soccer team, came out recently, as did the featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz. Steven Davies, a fringe player on the England cricket team, came out in 2011 and faced no major backlash. One of the best tennis players of all time, Bill Tilden, won ten grand slams in the 1920s only to end up in prison for having sex with other men.
And this is not to mention lesbian athletes, whose already overshadowed achievements were minimized further in Monday’s carousel of NBA myopia. Women’s tennis has seen a slew of lesbian champions, most recently Amélie Mauresmo, and the one and only Martina Navratilova pulled off a beautiful humble brag Monday when she tweeted her congratulations to Collins and then added,
Well done Jason Collins- you are a brave man. And a big man at that:) 1981 was the year for me- 2013 is the year for you:)
— Martina Navratilova (@Martina) April 29, 2013
Louisa Wall, the New Zealand MP who successfully steered a gay marriage bill into law this month, played for the country’s national women’s rugby team before entering politics. There’s also Megan Rapinoe, who helped lead the US women’s soccer team to last year’s World Cup, and the poised-for-megastardom basketballer Brittney Griner, who didn’t so much come out as say that she assumed everyone already knew she was gay.
It’s slightly embarrassing to see how many adjectives were required to assign the requisite significance to Collins’s coming out: the first active (1) male (2) openly (3) gay player in a major (4) American (5) team (6) sport. But none of those, somehow, mattered to Sports Illustrated, which had the gall to headline its cover story on Collins as “The Gay Athlete” – complete with definite article, as if he was the only one. Even the White House, for heaven’s sake, felt compelled to get in on the action, as did Bill Clinton, whose daughter knew Collins at Stanford.
Why has the coming out of one talented but not tremendously distinguished player, a free agent for goodness’ sake, mattered so much more than those of gold medalists and World Cup champions? Well, why does anything matter in America? The NBA and the other American pro leagues are where the money is, and far from discouraging disclosures like Collins’s, teams and advertisers are now practically begging athletes to come out – salivating at the marketing potential of a gay man in the pros. Brendon Ayanbadejo, an advocate for gay equality in football, told a reporter this month that studios already have movie scripts ready to go. Asked about the prospects of a gay player in the NBA, the unctuous Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said, “It would be a marketing goldmine for all involved.”
Even the homophobes are starting to get that. Tim Hardaway, who “let it be known” that he hates gays, got banished from the NBA’s all-star game and saw his endorsements evaporate. This week Brittney Griner, probably the highest-profile gay athlete in America, disclosed that she had inked a major endorsement deal with Nike. She wouldn’t say how much it was worth, only that it was “big time.” Jason Collins, now at the tail end of his career, probably won’t enjoy the same golden benefits, but somebody in the NBA or the NFL will very soon. Is that something to celebrate? Of course it is, on one level: sport is more than just a spectacle, and every action that makes gay life more visible is worth taking.
But while Collins has done something right and brave, the PR flood that’s accompanied it should remind us that sport is not some pure land of athletic contests, but a multibillion-dollar industry whose motivations are not exactly altruistic. We should all respect and celebrate gay achievements – but I fear the real desire for openly gay athletes comes from a hunger to sell sneakers.