It’s been a little over a year since I’ve done anything remotely resembling this, so please forgive me as I relearn how to write.
If you’re not really a sports fan or if you have been living under a rock, Jason Collins became the “first” active pro-athlete from any of the big 4 sports in the US to come out as gay. As you might imagine, a zillion things have been written about this on the internet. Most of this has been overwhelmingly positive, praising Collins as being super brave, marking his coming out as a historic moment in sports and for the most part, I’m on board. This is absolutely an important moment in sports and an important moment in the country’s attitudes towards LGBTQ folk. And of course, this is 100% a good thing. Any time a gay person feels comfortable enough to be out, no matter what the situation, is a good thing. And it is extra good when that situation is within the context of the traditionally homophobic atmosphere of professional sports. However, as with any of these kinds of things, the issue is much more complicated than “Yay! Gay athletes!” This is further complicated by the fact that today’s political climate make the chances of anyone writing or saying something negative about Collins are virtually nil. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing, but it also obscures how we as a nation actually feel about gay people. For every feel-good Jason Collins story, I can point out a zillion examples of where coming out doesn’t go so well.
So here are some things to mull over as we celebrate our progress towards not being jerks to people based on who turns us on.
1. It actually does matter that Jason Collins is not that great of an NBA player. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a had a respectable career as a big man who will rebound and play defense. But at no point in his career would Collins be considered a “top center” in the league. The fact that he is on the tail end of his career doesn’t help matters as it remains to be seen if he will even be playing in the NBA next year. This is important for a lot of reasons, but I think the most important reason is because there will be a chance that we will not be able to test whether or not America is “ready” for a gay male athlete. Collins is currently without a contract, and if he does not get a contract offer, it will be difficult to know whether he didn’t get one because he just doesn’t have the skills to play in the NBA anymore or he didn’t get a contract because no team wanted to deal with the accompanying media circus that would come with having an openly gay player on their team. The converse is true. If he gets another contract, you can believe that there will be people who will use the terrible affirmative action argument and say that his signing is some kind of publicity stunt. To reiterate, Jason Collins coming out is nothing but a good thing, but in terms of changing people’s perceptions of the relationship between being a great athlete and being heterosexual, the impact will be minimal because Collin’s success as an athlete is limited by his ability. This is actually super important for reasons that I will elaborate on later.
Relatedly, because he is not that great an NBA player, he really doesn’t have any “fans”. Well, he probably does now, but I doubt sincerely that any team was making any money by selling Jason Collins jerseys before now. It doesn’t really force any one to confront their own homophobia in relation to someone who they admired before. If someone at the top of his game who does have lots of fans – say Kevin Durant – were to come out, we would be able to see more clearly whether or not the knowledge that he is gay would affect public perception of him. The truth is, none of us really had an opinion of Jason Collins one way or the other up until now. And most likely, our opinion of him now is determined how we feel about GLBTQ issues in general. But beggars can’t be choosers, so we’ll take any positive vibes we can I guess.
2. The sport matters. I found it interesting and encouraging that scores of NBA players, past and present, showed their support (albeit via twitter :/ ) for Collins. I also found it interesting that the most notable twitter “objection” came from a football player. I find super duper interesting that to my knowledge no one on a Major League Baseball team has said anything.
For some it is actually surprising that the NBA would be the site of all of this since the NBA is the “blackest” of all of the sports leagues. That is because those people are racist dickholes. The fact that this happened in the NBA should not be surprising at all. Basketball, in addition to being the sport that is most influenced by African American culture, is also the sport that is most influenced by urban culture. And as we know, urban attitudes tend to be more liberal. In this case, urban sensibilities about masculinity contribute to a more accepting attitude of gay athletes. Which leads us to the most important thing I have to say which is….
3. The culture of hegemonic masculinity in sports shapes the way Collins’ coming out is framed and communicated to the culture consuming public, and does so in a problematic way. Some of you know that I wrote my dissertation on masculinity in sports, and one of my major conclusions was that in sports, challenges to masculinity are not really challenges, but rather re-articulations of masculinity that leave the core tenets of hegemonic masculinity in place. The narrative that Collins and the sports media have chosen is “Gay athletes can totally play pro sports!” Let’s look at Collins’ own choice of words in his coming out essay:
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. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn’t make you soft? Who knows? That’s something for a psychologist to unravel. My motivations, like my contributions, don’t show up in box scores, and frankly I don’t care about stats. Winning is what counts. I want to be evaluated as a team player.
The use of the words “aggressive”, “physical”, and “winning” are all characteristics that are associated with traditional hegemonic masculinity. The move that Collins (and the rest of the media) is making is to decouple being gay with femininity. This is important because for this to go smoothly, Collins has to be the “right kind” of gay person. Something that has helped Collins is that he is a 7 foot tall black man. He looks masculine. This is reflected in how sports columnists have written about this. They all subtly reinforce hegemonic masculinity and marginalize other types of gay identity.
Imagine if Collins held a press conference and came out in the same way that Magic Johnson’s son came out. What if Collins’ wore a feather boa and spoke like RuPaul? I suspect that the reception would be less welcoming towards Collins. Dennis Rodman all but said, “I really enjoy a penis in my mouth” and the media never hailed him as being courageous.
And while it is true that these can be examples of bad stereotypes about gay people, they can also represent direct challenges to heteronormative gender roles, which in turn, represent a direct challenge to hegemonic masculinity which places white heterosexual males atop the hierarchy. Collins’ own emphasis on his masculinity does not challenge this and encourages conformity to sexist gender roles.
This is where the fact that Collins is a mediocre basketball player comes into play because his coming out still does not fully challenge the notion that to be the very best athlete you have to be straight. Collins still is able to fit into the hierarchy the same way as before – below heterosexual males that exhibit masculine traits. Which is why it would be a more transformative moment if Lebron James came out. Hell it would be more transformative if he was simply a starter on a halfway decent team.
I know it seems like I’m pissing all over the feel good parade, but I promise, I’m really not trying to do that. Let me say one more time, this is a historic moment and one that I think will contribute much to the dialog about gays in sports. I think Jason Collins should be lauded for his courage and he will make a fine example to everyone. I am also not saying that Collins needs to be “gayer” or anything. He can do his sexuality any way he wants to.
However, sports and sports media still filter his story through the lens of hegemonic masculinty, in a way that marginalizes a large portion of both sports community and the GLBTQ community. IE – women have been out in sports forever and no one seems to want to call Britney Griner a hero. I guess what I’m worried about is that people will see this event as “problem solved!” for gay issues in the same way a lot of people seem to frame Obama’s election as “racism solved!”
The way that the Collins story is circumscribed within the framework of the hegemonic masculinity of sports provides an opportunity to examine the ways that gayness and gender are bound up together.