W.E.B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, wrote about the burden of having to live in a country where you were constantly viewed as being a source of stress and a complication for others, for no reason other than the color of your skin. He wrote, “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question…. How does it feel to be a problem?”
We can update that question in the case of unemployed NBA center Jason Collins. Here is a man who made history last spring by becoming the first active player to come out of the closet in the “big three” USA sports leagues and told the world that he was gay. He was praised by teammates, league officials, presidents and kings (OK, Bernard King). But now just for being himself, after a career as the epitome of a “team player”, he has been labeled “a distraction” and finds himself on the outside looking in at the start of the NBA season.
I attempted to reach out to Jason Collins and ask him about his status as a man without a team, but, as I heard from several people close to the veteran seven-footer, he is not talking.
Collins is not speaking to the media because he believes that he could still catch on somewhere before the All-Star break. He has concluded that being quiet at this moment in time and not making a big stink over his inability to land a contract is the best course of action. He may be correct, but therein also lies the problem: the demand that silence is the way to get back into the good graces of league executives. I do not believe that most teams are led by secret members of Focus on the Family. I do not believe that when Collins came out, NBA General Managers secretly had this collective reaction. I do believe that they consider Collins’s sexuality to be a “media distraction”, and in the buttoned-up corporate world of twenty-first-century sports, “media distractions” are only slightly less welcome than staph infections. I also believe that by sending the message that being gay is a “distraction”, NBA execs are bottle-feeding the homophobia in US society.
I spoke with John Amaechi, the first former NBA player to come out of the closet after retirement and he amplified this point. While Amaechi did point out that several teams have owners “with fairly public stances against the LGBT community” (see Rich DeVos in Orlando or Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon in Oklahoma City), the issue was more rooted in the risk/reward of signing a bench player who would get an inordinate amount of media attention about issues far from the court. Amaechi said to me, “Although I discount widespread homophobia, people shouldn’t discount the whispering and worried voices of PR executives and team lawyers fearing the risk of adverse publicity and other potential fallout, like the circus of non-stop tabloid coverage of Jason as ‘a gay person’ not as an athlete until someone—stressed teammate, owner, celebrity fan, coach or opponent player—slips and a potentially explosive story appears.”