09 May 2013

Deconstructing Jason Collins

By Grange95

Last week, Jason Collins became the first gay athlete to come out. Well, technically Collins became the first 1) active 2) male player in a 3) major 4) professional 5) North American sports league to come out 6) publicly. But for purposes of the American media, all those extra qualifiers are implied; all those gay and lesbian athletes who have been openly out while competing in sports on the high school, college, or Olympic level, or outside the United States, or in "fringe" sports like rugby, soccer, swimming, diving, tennis, or golf, really don't count. No, for the American sports media—and for most American sports fans—nothing really matters unless it happens in a sport that leads off the evening SportsCenter highlights.

The sports media—the almost exclusively straight media—rushed to analyze what it meant for a gay athlete to come out. The media ended up selling a prepackaged story of the brave gay athlete who shook the foundations of American sports with a courageous and selfless act, risking professional martyrdom for the greater good of advancing the cause of gay equality. The media presented the public a paint-by-numbers picture of Collins as the gay offspring of an admittedly unnatural yet narratively pleasing cross of Jackie Robinson and Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger. What a great story: Jason Collins—underdog role player turned civil rights hero. 

The only problem with the media's Collins-comes-out beatification? It's all bullshit.

* * * * *

Collins' coming out was unquestionably good for gays. It was bold. It was newsworthy. But it wasn't groundbreaking. Gay and lesbian athletes have been out in sports for decades. Martina Navratilova came out in 1981 at the height of her stellar career, at a time when being gay or lesbian was still criminal in many states, where being out meant rejection and hostility from a majority of Americans. Being an openly gay athlete in the 1980s meant almost certain loss of outside income from speaking and endorsement opportunities, and a likely banishment from team sports.

In the ensuing three decades, quite a number of notable and even star lesbian athletes have come out while still active in their sport. Sheryl Swoopes—one of the all-time greatest women basketball players—and Megan Rapinoe—an Olympic soccer player—are among the numerous lesbian athletes who have successfully competed at the elite levels of team sports. Just a few weeks prior to Collins' much-heralded announcement, college all-star basketball player Brittney Griner—possibly the most dominant women's basketball player ever—casually mentioned she was lesbian in a post-draft interview. Turns out, Griner has been out since ninth grade. Funny how we haven't heard any chatter about whether Griner being an out lesbian would negatively affect her team; the Baylor Bears were far too busy winning games, including a 40-0 championship season in 2012, to be distracted by Griner's personal life. Griner's orientation also hasn't damaged her career; she was the top pick in the WNBA draft.

Why Griner's story got so little love from the media is probably a combination of a number of factors. Obviously, in the 32 years since Navratilova came out, dozens of other women athletes—many of them stars in their sports—have also come out. Another lesbian is good at sports? Yawn.

But it's probably more than familiarity at work. As America began having a discussion of the role of women in the workplace in the 1960s and 1970s, a similar conversation about women in sports was ignited by the passage of Title IX in 1972. Slowly at first in the 1970s and 1980s, then more rapidly beginning in the 1990s, Americans have come not just to accept women in sports, but to embrace women athletes. Along the way, as America was getting used to women being doctors, lawyers, engineers, and politicians, America was getting comfortable with women getting sweaty, physical, even manly while playing sports. Because lesbians have been openly playing sports since the early days of the modern women in sports movement, the idea of lesbian athletes was never any more threatening to American men than the idea of women athletes in general. That's not to say lesbians don't face many of the same prejudices as gay men do in America. It's just that lesbians are ten or fifteen years ahead of gay men, at least when it comes to sports.

* * * * *

Of course, there is one prejudice unique to the male locker room that gay men must face. It has to do with why straight dudes think adding a second woman to the bedroom (or their latest porn download) is freaky in a hot, my-bros-will-never-believe-this way, but adding a second dude is freaky in an awkward, don't-cross-the-swords way. It's why straight guys who see two girls kissing at the bar cheer, but flip out if two guys do the same thing.

OK boys—and I'm assuming here that 98% of Ocelot Sports readers are red-blooded American straight male sports fans—it's time for you to go pour yourself a manly drink. Make it three fingers of bourbon, neat. Or maybe a nice 18-year old Scotch with just a few drops of water to open it up. Or my summer drink of choice—PatrĂ³n silver on the rocks, with a wedge of lime—if you want to go fancy. Just make sure it's something that'll put hair on your tastefully manscaped chest.

Because it's high time we had a little bro-talk about your junk.

Look, it's no secret male athletes like their junk. A little good-natured junk-joking, ball-tapping, crotch-grabbing, and sack-gesturing is part and parcel of the straight male sports experience. Purely on a no-homo basis, obviously.

It's disappointing, but hardly surprising, that almost all of the sports media who spewed half-baked analysis about the Collins story completely avoided the junk issue. Even the few brave souls who dared approach the junk issue did so with timid euphemisms like "player discomfort" and "locker room distractions."

C'mon sports media! We can get a literal blow by blow account of Rick Pitino—coach of the reigning NCAA Men's Basketball Champion Louisville Cardinals—getting it on with an equipment manager's wife in a restaurant, leading to allegations of an abortion and blackmail, but a frank discussion of the perceived problem of gay men sharing locker rooms with straight men is too sordid, too disturbing to mention? Grow some balls!

The sports media was forced to confront the gays in the locker room issue earlier this year, however, when San Francisco 49ers player Chris Culliver spouted off prior to the Super Bowl that gays would not be welcome in the locker room:
"I don't do the gay guys man. I don't do that. No, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff. Naw, can't be in the locker room man. Naw."
Culliver's guardian, Murray Pool, Jr., doubled down and blamed the media for even asking Culliver about gays in sports:
"At the same time, even if the question was asked on a serious note, he couldn't have answered it the right way. If Chris would have said, “No, it’s okay, I agree with homosexuals playing with me, it’s totally fine,” then people would have questioned Chris’ homosexuality in himself. If he would have said, “No comment,” people would have questioned whether there are homosexuals on the 49ers. Chris said what he said. Next thing you know, the world turns him into Adolf Hitler or something. In my opinion, it’s a lose, lose question any way he answers it."
But even "no gays in my locker room" still obscures the real issue. NBA All-Star and MVP LeBron James touched on the issue in 2007 when he expressed concern about a gay player sharing the showers with his straight teammates. More recently, LSU head football coach Les Miles stated he would have to take into account locker room and hotel room issues if a gay player came out on his team. According to those who are uncomfortable with gay athletes in the locker room, people are just "making straight guys feel guilty about not wanting to be looked at by gay guys." And let's be blunt here, it's not just that these straight guys don't want to be looked at, it's mostly about the "straight guy who doesn't want his junk oogled."

Ahh, yes, there's the rub. The gay guy who plays sports so he can scope out straight guy junk every day. One of those gay bogeymen trotted out to justify bigotry. Closely related to the gay soldier who might shower or bunk with a straight soldier just to ogle some straight junk. Just another example of those icky gay predators lurking out there threatening to assault straight men, and maybe even make them gay.

Boys, it's time for that drink. Because I'm about to blow your mind.

Gay dudes have already seen your junk. 

It's a simple matter of statistics. If, like most sports-loving straight American men, you played team sports on any level whatsoever from high school age on, or if you even just belong to a local fitness club, you have shared locker rooms with a lot of guys. Some of them have seen your junk. Some of them were gay. And your junk is still safe.

Look, gay men are in the locker room for the same reason as their straight counterparts—for the business of working out. Contrary to the fantasy world of bad TV shows and worse porn, the dirty, stinky reality of male locker rooms is not particularly conducive to sexual tension. Sure, just like some straight men, some gay men are pigs. If a gay guy gets all creepy and inappropriate, there are both legal and informal ways to handle the situation, same as a straight guy who gets all creepy and inappropriate with a woman. But here's the thing, most gay guys are not interested in flirting with or hitting on straight guys, for the same reasons straight guys don't flirt with or hit on married women—why waste time on someone who is unavailable? Or, hard as this might be for straight guys to fathom, quite likely you "just aren't their type".

Male athletes once offered up the "player discomfort" and "disruption of the locker room" canards when resisting the movement to permit women reporters into the locker room. Straight male athletes seem to have adapted to the presence of women in the locker room with no effect on their athletic performance. Presumably they can do the same for gay teammates.

* * * * *

Once we get past the absurdity of the straight male junk-ogling fears, the real stumbling block for gay athletes is laid bare. Unlike the general acceptance of lesbians in women's sports, straight men simply have not yet gotten comfortable with the idea of gay male athletes. Straight men continue to view the world through a prism of masculinity in which being an athlete means being a hyper-masculine man. There's a reason why many straight male coaches and athletes use "faggot" and "pussy" interchangeably as the sharpest insults toward players who are perceived as weak. It's not a coincidence that three of the four major North American professional sports—football, baseball, and hockey—essentially have no analogue for women athletes. Only basketball, with the NBA-subsidized WNBA league, offers a professional level opportunity for women players. American professional sports, along with their big money college feeder programs, remain the province of manly men.

Of course, Collins personally demolishes the "gay men are wimps" stereotype, as do other notable "out" athletes like professional rugby player Gareth Thomas, professional soccer player Robbie Rogers, Olympic and professional boxer Orlando Cruz, and retired NFL linemen Kwame Harris and Esera Tuaolo. "Macho" straight athletes like NBA star Charles Barkley, NHL star Sean Avery, and NFL star Michael Irvin—just to name a few high profile examples—also lend their support to gay athletes. Still, the He-Man-Woman-And-Gay-Haters Club mentality is all too common among male athletes. LSU running back Alfred Blue expressed this sentiment rather candidly in a recent interview:
Football is supposed to be this violent sport—this aggressive sport that grown men are supposed to play. Ain’t no little boys out here between them lines. So if you gay, we look at you as a sissy. You know? Like, how you going to say you can do what we do and you want a man?
This quote encapsulates the real story behind Collins' coming out: the problem of entrenched straight male stereotypes about gay men as sissy boys incapable of being real men. It's an issue the mainstream sports media continually breezes past, choosing to focus instead on how gay men are becoming more comfortable in the straight male-dominated world of sports. America has had a four decade long conversation about the role of women in society, and women are now, by and large, routinely accepted as the equals of men in many "traditional" male roles. Lesbian women have contemporaneously gained acceptance along with straight women, even—and especially—in many highly masculine pursuits such as sports and the military. Yet gay men lag badly in similar acceptance into the those arenas which are the province of the most masculine of straight guys. And without a frank conversation about straight male misperceptions of gay men, gay athletes will continue to feel pressure to conform to masculine stereotypes, including pressure to stay in the closet in order to be "one of the guys".

Admittedly, the problem does not lie solely at the feet of straight men. Gay men, too, buy into the "gay men aren't real men" conceit. Even within the gay community there is a schism between gay men who are more masculine, whose interests align with more traditional male pursuits, who pass more readily as straight, and those gay men who are less traditionally masculine, whose interests align more with traditional female pursuits, who appear more stereotypically gay. The mean-spirited comments directed by straight males toward gay men often are matched or even exceeded by the derogatory comments from "straight-acting" gays toward their "flamer" brethren. Collins even alludes to this masculine-feminine divide in his coming out story:
I'm not afraid to take on any opponent. I love playing against the best. Though Shaquille O'Neal is a Hall of Famer, I never shirked from the challenge of trying to frustrate the heck out of him. (Note to Shaq: My flopping has nothing to do with being gay.) My mouthpiece is in, and my wrists are taped. Go ahead, take a swing -- I'll get up. I hate to say it, and I'm not proud of it, but I once fouled a player so hard that he had to leave the arena on a stretcher.
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.
Regrettably, Collins both articulates and validates the demeaning straight male prejudice about gay men:  Being gay means you might take on a feminine role. Being a woman is being weak. Thus, being gay means being weak. And the one thing a real man cannot be, is weak. So, when it comes to sports, only manly men need apply.

Because talking about masculinity stereotypes is uncomfortable, the media took the easy route, covering the Collins story from the perspective of what Collins' coming out means to gay athletes. But the importance of Collins' announcement is that it actually highlights a critical straight male issue—Will straight men choose to accept openly gay men as fellow athletes, teammates, competitors, and fans? Gays who enjoy sports and gays who are athletes are not looking for acceptance as "gay sports fans" or "gay athletes". They would rather just be "sports fans" and "athletes" who happen to be gay. It is straight men who make gay men feel like outcasts when it comes to sports, and it is those straight men who must choose to change how they perceive and treat gay men so that gay men feel welcome in the sports world.

* * * * *

There is one final observation to sift out of the bullshit spewed by most of the media in their fawning coverage of the "Collins comes out" story: No matter how many times it gets written or said, Collins is no gay hero. 

First and foremost, despite the lure of the facile analogy, Jason Collins is not Jackie Robinson. When Jackie Robinson broke into Major League Baseball, he was forced to blaze his own trail in a country where Jim Crow laws and racial violence were current events. Collins is treading a path well-mapped out by others, a path which nowadays has few notable obstacles or pitfalls. Robinson was sui generis, Collins was derivative.

More to the point, Collins is a poor gay role model. Certainly Collins has shown class, dignity, and grace in coming out. Yet his public coming out was neither brave nor courageous. There are thousands of American kids in high schools and colleges who come out as gay each year, despite the fear of rejection by their parents, families, and friends. These gay kids are the ones who risk physical or mental abuse or even outright abandonment by their parents, along with bullying and social ostracization by their peers, merely for being openly gay or even just being perceived as gay. It's no surprise that rates of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and suicide are markedly higher in gay teens than their straight counterparts. Many of these younger gays are also athletes openly out to their sports teams (something true even back in the 1990s and early 2000s). These openly gay kids are the truly brave and courageous heroes whose stories should be covered by the media. It is these open and honest younger gays who actually influence their straight peers and sway them toward acceptance and support of gay equality. They are true role models.

By contrast, Collins stayed closeted during the entire portion of his career when coming out might have been even remotely risky. While in the closet, Collins had a successful college career, followed by a 12-year professional career in which he earned over $30 million in salary alone; not bad for a journeyman role player whose best skill is being tall. Collins waited to come out until he knew his professional career was on the wane, and with the comfort of knowing his family would likely be supportive. Collins also came out amidst great public anticipation for a major pro athlete to acknowledge being gay, with a friendly media eagerly waiting to spin the story in a positive light. And let's just note that most gays come out without receiving supportive Tweets from folks like Kobe Bryant or Bill Clinton.

The overwhelmingly positive public reception for Collins is no surprise. During recent years, work by groups such as Athlete Ally and the You Can Play Project have organized educational outreach to athletes and the media to help lay the groundwork for public acceptance of gay athletes. The commissioners of every major sports league have publicly declared support for gay athletes, as have scores of sports stars. Public support and acceptance of gays and lesbians is at an all-time high. It's great that Collins chose to come out, but let's not forget he also chose to let others do most of the heavy lifting.

The one redeeming grace of the Collins story is that the sports media has shot its "Gay Watch 2013" wad. We can be done with the overblown hype surrounding the inconsequential question, "Who will be the first gay male athlete to come out?" Instead, we can focus on the harder question: "This is 2013, not 1983. If you're a gay professional athlete, what's your excuse for staying in the closet?"

Grange95  (a/k/a Michael M.) is a lawyer and poker player from Iowa. He's the author of the crAAKKer poker blog. He also happens to be both a sports fan (Huskers, Packers, whoever is playing Duke) and a gay dude.


todd adams said...

loved the article. i agree with you on almost all points. I do agree that there is an imbalance of the actual "courage" of J Collins vs the courage of a teenager that comes out. the fact that this hasn't happened yet (Active, major sport, male, etc), he deserves the spotlight as he will inspire more to do the same. someone has to be the first and the easier path (from a certain perspective) would have been to remain silent.
thanks for sharing!

Grange95 said...


Thanks for stopping by. I totally agree Collins deserves the spotlight, as do other gay athletes who come out. At some point, it will be sufficiently commonplace that it will no longer be notable, and presumably a lot of stereotypes will go by the wayside in the process. The problem is that, by waiting until their careers are over or essentially over, gay athletes hold back that process by staying in the closet. Still, Collins moved the conversation past "who will be first?" and we're now a step closer to "who cares?"