Jason Collins has been compared to Jackie Robinson. And Neil Armstrong.
True pioneer? Not exactly.
Now that we’ve had a few days to reflect on what it means for Collins to come out as gay, it’s time to recognize what this really was — a significant step, to be sure, but hardly a slam-dunk leap toward an equal playing field.
To be clear, I’m pulling hard for Collins to be on an NBA roster next season, to get a chance to show all the doubters and nay-sayers that a gay man can be just another guy in a pro sports locker room.
But even if Collins does land another contract — hardly a sure thing, given he’s a 34-year-old journeyman center who barely played this season for the woeful Washington Wizards and is now a free agent — I’m not convinced this will be as groundbreaking as so many are making it out to be.
For starters, anyone who plays with Collins will have a whole summer to prepare for the inevitable, annoying questions, to bury their beliefs or prejudices so deep there’s no chance of getting them to reveal how they really feel. They’ll know that Collins likely will be around for one more year, so they can keep smiling and saying how proud they are to have him as a teammate. Very soon, he’ll be gone.
Even if another team gives Collins a chance to play, he isn’t going to be on the court very much. A 7-footer with limited offensive skills, he’s logged an average of 34 games over the last five seasons. Those rare spots he did get in, he averaged less than 11 minutes of playing time.
At best, maybe there’s a handful of games, most likely when his team faces one of the league’s few imposing centers, like Dwight Howard and Roy Hibbert.
At worst, he comes off as a token, a player whose career would have been over had he not come out, who gets a job because the league or a team wants to look progressive.
As former Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder said on his radio show in Miami, Collins’ revelation isn’t going to have the same impact as a younger player who is either a starter or at least a significant contributor, whose best years are ahead.
“Him being the low-end player he is, it’s not going to open enough minds,” said Crowder, who also said he respects Collins for taking such a bold step.
Others went way, way overboard in the heat of the moment.
Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers made comparisons to Robinson, who became the first black major leaguer in 1947. TV pundit Star Jones referenced Rosa Parks, who sparked the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s, a landmark event in the civil rights movement. Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, who came out after his diving career ended, looked to the heavens for the appropriate analogy.
“It is almost like Neil Armstrong on the moon,” Louganis said. “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.”
While the praise for Collins was generally universal, a sign of how much the country has moved in the right direction on issues of sexuality, there are still plenty of reasons to be skeptical of just how much the macho world of pro sports will be accepting of a gay teammate.
One doesn’t have to spend long hanging out in a baseball clubhouse or a football or basketball locker room to hear gay slurs casually thrown around. A player who gives up a home run, or fails to make a tackle, or gets dunked on, is often referred to as “gay” — meant to describe weakness, someone who isn’t as good as the next guy.
Despite the efforts of athletes like NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, who have spoken passionately in support of gay marriage, the guess is more players feel like San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver and Miami Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace.
Culliver stirred debate before the Super Bowl when he proclaimed that none of his teammates was gay and he wouldn’t want to play with a homosexual. Wallace tweeted after the Collins announcement that he didn’t understand how someone could be gay — “All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys SMH (shaking my head).”
Wallace had to backtrack from, delete and eventually apologize for two tweets; Culliver also apologized and underwent sensitivity training. Nevertheless, Ayanbadejo estimates that at least half the NFL players feel the same way.
I got an idea of how a locker room works a few years ago while working on a story about this very subject: whether pro sports was ready to accept an active player coming out as gay. Now-retired pitcher John Smoltz made it clear he was opposed to homosexuality on religious grounds, even asking derisively, “What’s next? Marrying an animal?”
Eddie Perez, then a catcher and now a Braves coach, said he would be uncomfortable showering and changing clothes in front of someone he knew was gay.
All of these point to what Collins or any gay athlete must overcome.
The machismo. The lack of understanding. The religious beliefs. The wariness of being in an intimate setting (though a locker room might be the least sexual place on the planet).
A highly respected player and teammate, Collins has helped chip away at some of those barriers. But if he doesn’t play next season — or even if he does — he’s just the next rung on the ladder, right above former NBA center John Amaechi, who revealed he was gay after his career was over.
More likely, Collins will be remembered as the guy whose courage helped persuade someone with more impact to come out, someone who can help us move even closer to the kind of world that Louganis would like to see.
“Our sexuality does not define us,” the Olympic champion said. “It is just a part of us, like being left-handed or 5-foot-9.”
We’re getting closer, but Collins isn’t the guy to get us there.
Hopefully, the next person will be.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
AP Sports Writers Pat Graham in Denver and Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.