If you talked to any American with any appreciation of sports yesterday, he or she would probably have conceded to you that Jason Collins is a badass. Collins is bright. He is handsome. He is strong. He is tall. Oh, and he plays in the NBA, which pretty much makes you a badass by default.
Today, we found out that this American badass professional athlete also happens to be gay. This is a watershed moment: Collins' bravery and candor will do more to obliterate the still culturally prevalent (and grossly inaccurate) stereotypes relating to homosexuality's relationship to masculinity than 100 years of cultural tolerance or sensitivity training ever could. When we look back many, many years from now, we will realize that Jason Collins' mere announcement may have done more for gay rights in America than any ballot initiative, piece of legislation, or court decision ever could.
As someone who follows sports closely and has had the opportunity to spend some time around professional athletes and around professional locker rooms, I can confirm what many other reporters and even athletes will tell you: The culture that defines professional athletics, especially professional team sports, remains considerably less progressive toward homosexuality than even the least progressive parts of America.
A hyper-primitive concept of masculinity continues to define how we think of athletes and, just as importantly, how athletes think of themselves. In the popular imagination, these are tough guys who play hard, party harder, and sleep with lots of incredibly attractive women. Remember "Chicks Dig the Long Ball?" The message was that hot women like their men to be humongous badasses who hit the ball very far, like Mark McGwire (who we now know was taking steroids). That being the case, the commercial saw two of the finest finesse pitchers of all time, Greg Maddox and Tom Glavine, take to the weight room so that they could "get big," hit home runs, and score with hot chicks. It was a great ad… but also an extraordinarily clear reminder of how we think of professional athletes: big strong men who sleep with hot women.
Which brings us back to why Jason Collins is such a badass. For years, there have been gay athletes. They just have not felt safe enough to come out, and with good reason. They feared their teammates would reject them. They feared their sponsors would abandon them. And they feared that fans would turn their backs on them. So pronounced was this atmosphere that the creators of the much-praised ESPN drama Playmakers crafted an entire storyline around a gay player who is so afraid to come out to his teammates that he actually proposes to a woman to attempt to quash the rumors. Playmakers may have been a drama, but the NFL more or less forced ESPN to take it off the air because it struck a little too close to home on parts of NFL culture that the league would prefer not to advertise, and the show got the gay professional athlete's dilemma exactly right.
And so, even as gay marriage won victories in courts and on state ballots, and even as we collectively began to become a more tolerant society, not a single professional athlete from a major professional sports league (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) had publicly made it known that he was a professional athlete who happened to be gay.
Until today, of course, when Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran big man stated simply: "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay." Anyone who knows anyone who is gay, or who bothers to think about our culture at all, knows that coming out is not an easy decision, primarily because being gay in America continues to come with some baggage and hatred that being straight simply does not.
Jason Collins is extraordinarily gutsy. He is now openly gay in the most hyper-masculine culture on earth — an NBA locker room. Rmemeber, when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive, practically the first question was "are you gay?" When he said no, people actually applauded. Collins plays the same sport and lives in the same country, and while the country's attitudes may have become more tolerant since we were oh so gleeful that our basketball hero was not gay, the culture in professional locker rooms has not come nearly as far.
Jason Collins is going to have a tough time. But it is for that exact reason that Jason Collins' decision to come out while he is still playing in the league — and I cannot underscore how important the "still playing" part of that statement is — will prove more important for all of us than we can possibly imagine. All of the players who have played with Jason Collins, and there are a lot, now have a friend that, it turns out, has been gay all along. That revelation alone is often enough to make one re-evaluate one's feelings about homosexuality. And then there is the fact that his teammates have been showering with this gay guy, and he didn't hit on them in the showers!
Our collective propensity to worship our athletes gives sport a capacity to teach us things that we simply could not have learned in any school. Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Jesse Owens, and Joe Louis taught us about race relations. Magic Johnson taught us about HIV-AIDS. And now Jason Collins, who honestly need not say another word about being gay for the rest of his career if he so chooses, stands as the most concrete example that being a badass has nothing to do with which sex you prefer.