The news of 12-year NBA veteran (and active player) Jason Collins announcing that he is gay is groundbreaking moment that is to be celebrated. Encouragingly, the response from his own teammates, fellow NBA players, and other athletes has been overwhelmingly positive, except for that one bigoted asshole NFL player at the end.
There have been other major league male athletes that have come out (John Amaechi, Glenn Burke, Billy Bean, and more), though all of those athletes came out after ending their playing careers. (Though in the case of Glenn Burke, him being gay was fairly well known to his teammates)
For a male athlete to come out while still being an active player is an act of courage, plain and simple. To suggest otherwise, as some are doing in message boards and article comments sections, would disregard the fact that even in our increasingly embracing society of openly gay persons, until today no active male athlete in a major sport has come out. That's saying a lot.
But what also speaks volumes is that there have been active female athletes who have come out as gay. Perhaps the greatest tennis player ever, Martina Navratilova, came out in 1981. She went on to win an 16 of her 18 Major event titles after coming out.
And just last week, women basketball phenom Brittney Griner came out, albeit with much more nonchalance than Jason Collins. For those of you who are not aware of Brittney Griner, she is considered one of the best women's basketball players of all time, even before she plays in her first ever WNBA game.
Brittney stared at Baylor University, where the Lady Bears went 40-0 two years ago and lost in a major upset in this year's NCAA Tournament, which prevented Brittney from scoring the most points in women's college basketball history (she's #2). She's 6'8" and can throw down some exciting dunks. We're talking about the superstar of superstars.
And her coming out barely registered a blip in the national media.
Daily Kos user Dave in Northridge agrees (thank you Dave for inspiring me to write this diary)
Even though my normal forte is science writing, I hope you follow me below the orange croissant to learn about and discuss this issue.
Hands down, the most impactful course I ever took at Rutgers University was a 400-level Psychology (now American Studies) course entitled "The Intersection of Sports and Sexuality". It was my final semester at Rutgers (Spring 2009), and I needed one additional psychology course to satisfy my minor.
I was drawn to this course on the recommendation of one of my best friends who had taken it the previous year, not to mention my relationship with the professor, with whom I had been fortunate to meet and talk with the prior semester in a student government function.
I have always been progressive in my values, but despite having spent three and a half years at one of America's most diverse campuses, this course shocked even more sense into me about how privileged I am to be a white, heterosexual male. Privilege indeed is not having to consciously think about your race, sexual orientation, or any other minority status as you live your daily life.
Throughout the semester I learned about the politics and general public resistance of transgender persons competing in sport, how male professional wrestling (i.e. - WWE) has a generally homophobic fan base despite the wrestlers excessively body grooming and wearing stereotypically "flamboyant gay" costumes. I also learned about the severe power structures of sport, how the locker room can function as a panopticon against progress, and that before Steubenville, Ohio there was Glen Ridge, New Jersey.
No matter the changing content of each weekly interactive class session, what kept reinforcing in my mind is that men and women are treated vastly different within the context of sports.
Some of you may thinking, "well, obviously!", but what about these more subtle examples.
When Don Imus called my fellow students at Rutgers "nappy headed hoes" in Spring 2007, why did everyone focus on the "nappy headed" part, but paid no attention to the "hoes" part?
Why do athletes degrade their opponents by calling them terms associated with weakness and femininity? Why is it ok to call an opponent a "pussy", "sissy", "faggot", or "you play ball like a girl!" when we want to bring them down?
Why do women tennis players only play 3 sets and men play 5 sets?
Why are women still not allowed to enter the Masters clubhouse?
Perhaps there is no greater representation of how women and men are treated differently in the arena of sports than the composition of the Sports Illustrated cover. Jason Collins comes out as gay, and he graces the cover of the latest edition:
The only time women grace the cover of Sports Illustrated?
Brittney Griner - the superstar of superstars in women's basketball - comes out, and nobody notices other than hardcore sports fans. Sure, it was mentioned on ESPN's alternative sports site Grantland (which is fantastic, btw. Kossack favorite Charles Pierce writes often for the site). But top headline news for ESPN? Cover of Sports Illustrated? Coverage on Daily Kos???
Is it because we expected this announcement from Brittney? Because the conventional wisdom is that all women athletes, especially superstars, are thought to be lesbians? Because of the way Brittney dresses. Because of the fact that Brittney had never painted her fingernails before WNBA Draft night?
I'm happy for Jason Collins and hope he gets a job with an NBA team next year (he is currently a free agent). But the way this situation has unfolded throughout the day - and how it has been vastly different from Brittney's coming out - lends me to believe that the intersections of sport and sexuality require much more discussion than my 400-level psychology course at Rutgers University.
5:14 PM PT: In response to some comments correctly pointing out that the WNBA and women's basketball in general is way less popular than the NBA.
What I wanted to get at (and may have missed the mark on this particular point) is that a lot of people are saying "who cares" about Jason Collins coming out as gay, he's a borderline bench player at best. It will REALLY be a big deal when a super star comes out. And my point is that, hey, in women's basketball the super-super-superstar DID come out, and nobody cared. So that's where one (of several) double standards exists.
As always, I appreciate whomever takes the time to read my writing and offer their own reflections and expertise.
5:30 PM PT: Also, I think readers are focusing too much about Griner's situation than my overall commentary about how women are treated much differently than men in the arena of sports.
Yes, it was me who put Griner in the title in the first place. But her story and how it differs from Jason Collins' story is just the first step of the sport/sexuality/politics staircase that I wanted to climb together.