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.”
This fear among NBA suits that “distraction” will derail winning has no basis in historical fact. Do off-court “political” distractions actually hurt a team’s ability to compete for a championship? It is difficult to think of a more political player in NBA history than Bill Russell who won eleven championships in thirteen years and is only getting his own damned statue this weekend. If Russell’s political resume has any historical competition, it would come from Kareem Abdul Jabbar (five rings), Bill Walton (two rings), or Steve Nash (back-to-back MVPs). Being an actual human being, with interests and concerns off the court, is not a “distraction” from wanting to win.
The obvious response to what I just wrote would be that if Collins could play like Russell or Kareem, he would have no problem finding a franchise. John Amaechi also made that plain, saying to me, “The real truth may just be that he’s a journeyman towards the end of his career. However, I still think there is a place for him—I said way back that players who are solid on court and help cohesion with their attitude off it—still aren’t that common so I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets to replace a younger role-player a few weeks into the season.”
Yes it is true that Collins is 35 and it has been several years since he played a truly meaningful on-court role. Yes it is true that he is not going to be anything resembling an efficient scorer. But he is also a big seven-foot body, and by all accounts an exceptional locker room presence and mentor. Despite only averaging ten minutes a game last year for the Celtics, Doc Rivers was reportedly bereft to see him go to the Wizards in a late-season trade. After Collins came out of the closet, Rivers said, “I am extremely happy and proud of Jason Collins. He’s a pro’s pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite ‘team’ players I have ever coached.”
And yet here is Doc Rivers now coaching a stocked Clippers team whose greatest obstacle to the NBA Finals is not the Spurs or Thunder but their own two young big men who cannot seem to corral their wild-limbed physical potential, a situation tailor-made for a certain 35-year-old veteran.
But let’s not single out Doc Rivers. Despite Collins age, there are a sizable number of general managers who say that he should still—based on ability alone—be able to find a home in the NBA.
ESPN’s Marc Stein’s informal poll of NBA executives revealed that roughly half of them said that they believed he would find a team. Kevin Arnovitz over at TrueHoop, informally surveying league execs at the Las Vegas Summer League found a similar response, with most saying that he would get signed at the end of training camp. One GM said to Kevin, “He’s a September player. He’s a positive locker-room influence and still plays big. The league likes him.”
But now Jason Collins does not appear to be a September or October player and is just hoping that he could possibly be a “January ten-day-contract player”, while also trying to prove in the meantime that he has no desire to be a distraction. The inability of any team throughout the NBA—in David Stern’s final season—to find him a roster spot, however, could prove to be more distracting than Jason Collins ever could be.
When Collins came out, Martina Navratilova called it a “game changer”, saying, “Collins has led the way to freedom. Yes, freedom—because that closet is completely and utterly suffocating. It’s only when you come out that you can breathe properly. … Millions of kids will see that it is OK to be gay. No need for shame, no need for embarrassment, no need for hiding.” If teams choose to send the message that “being gay is a distraction”, then people can rightly wonder just how much has actually changed.
The latest Student Nation looks at student mobilizations, including the effort to change the culture of violence and discrimination at UConn.