A pivotal moment not only in the history of sports, but of human rights occurred last year when NBA veteran Jason Collins came out as gay. Collins’ announcement made him the first openly gay man in the four major American sports. However the 14-year veteran would wait patiently in free agency for a team to sign him.
A few short months later, NFL prospect Michael Sam revealed that he was gay. The star linebacker out of Missouri joined Collins on the front line of tolerance in U.S. professional sports.
Both of these guys are as tough as they come, contrary to dead-wrong stereotypes that are manufactured by bigots. Sam is a 6’2”, 260 pound defensive end who is menacing in stature and play style. His 11.5 sacks last season were good enough for co-defensive player of the year honors in the SEC. You could say Sam brings down quarterbacks and stereotypes with equal force.
Collins is a 7-footer with a specialty in setting devastating screens and providing the toughness only a savvy NBA veteran could. Unfortunately in the early stages of his time with the Brooklyn Nets this season, an opposing player used a gay slur to try and intimidate Collins. It didn’t faze him, and he went on to tell Bleacher Report:
“As an individual, as a person, as a human being, you have a lot of different hats that you wear. Whether you’re an athlete or a human being trying to empower and help others. I’m trying to, again, empower and help others in any way that I can.”
Collins and Sam prove that it doesn’t matter who you love, what you believe or how you live your life; success in sports comes from dedication to the craft and acceptance of who you are.
The Worldwide Leader in Overreacting
There’s no doubt that the locker rooms of their respective teams are willing to accept Collins and Sam. If you help the team, who cares what you do outside of the sport? That’s the attitude of pretty much every levelheaded player in the NBA and NFL, but the media seems to think that a gay player in the locker room is a distraction of massive proportions. While the presence of a gay player may influence other players to watch what they say, the dynamic of the locker room isn’t in danger of being destroyed, but don’t tell that to the worldwide leader in sports.
ESPN has held debates (its favorite kind of “journalism”) over the last few months about the so-called gay player “distraction”. Herm Edwards and Chris Broussard have provided ass-backwards opinions, Skip Bayless has said his usual moronic things to gain attention, Stephen A. Smith has been as loud as possible—in short, nothing’s changed in Bristol.
But with a topic like this, there’s no room for ESPN’s new brand of stupidity. While their personalities quarrel over whether or not a gay player is a distraction, they’re creating the distraction.
And we wonder why so many gay athletes stay closeted. The barrage of attention paid to the non-sports part of their lives is too much to handle. NFL great Deion Sanders spoke with NFL network about the subject, and said he played with one or two gay players on every team he was on. Everybody knew it, nobody judged and nobody cared. They were worried about football and nothing more. If that’s not proof that the media is at fault here, I’m not sure what is.
A Step in the Right(s) Direction
The LGBT community’s fight for equality in life and in marriage is the human rights struggle of the 21st century. What Collins and Sam are doing is impressive, but let’s not forget that many female athletes have paved the way: Billie Jean King in tennis, World Record swimmer Diana Nyad and most recently, Brittney Griner in women’s basketball. While these are a select few of many brave sportswomen, countless since even the 70’s have come out either during or after their careers.
Griner isn’t your average girl. She’s 6’8” with a near seven-foot wingspan, a dominant shot-blocker and the #1 pick in the most recent WNBA draft. So why wasn’t her coming out such a hotly debated issue on the major sports networks? Won’t she make her fellow WNBA players uncomfortable in the locker room? There wasn’t much of a peep out of ESPN when this news broke, they interviewed Griner once and that was that.
Yet again we’re dealing with the issue of stereotypes. People see lesbian and transgender people in women’s sports and think of it as more “normal” than a gay or transgender person participating in men’s sports. This idea that male athletes are supposed to be your traditional definition of a man and that female athletes are less feminine than other women is absurd. The world, especially America, is a melting pot of various beliefs, creeds and orientations. Sports are no different.
In order for professional sports to provide equal treatment for all, we need to rid our minds of absurd stereotypes and sports media needs to treat an LGBT athlete no different than any other. It’s only a distraction if we make it into one.
UPDATE: On April 9th, UMass guard Derrick Gordon became the first male college basketball player to announce that he is gay. ESPN must have learned their lesson, because they covered this story in a concise, respectful and objective manner.