On Sunday night Jason Collins became the first openly gay man to play in one of the four major U.S. sports leagues. Collins, who came out last off-season, signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets and promptly saw action in a road game against the Lakers, playing almost 11 minutes and contributing what he usually has in his previous pro stops with New Jersey, Memphis, Minnesota, Atlanta and Boston.
That is to say: Practically nothing.
He missed his lone field goal attempt, snatched two rebounds and had a steal, while also turning it over twice and committing five fouls in those eleven minutes.
Nevertheless, the highlights of the game were all centered on Collins. Here's his steal. Here's his first rebound. And his second rebound. Here's him setting a screen. All the negative plays, the turnovers, the fouls, they were conspicuously absent. Oh-and-by-the-way the Nets won 108-102, with Deron Williams scoring 30 and adding seven assists, six steals and five rebounds while Paul Pierce chipped in with 25. One of the main reasons Collins played at all was because Kevin Garnett was being rested.
Now I understand the historic and social implications of what Collins did. I also understand that Collins, as middling as his skills are, is better at basketball than 99.9999 percent of dudes on the planet. None of that is lost on me.
Relatively speaking though, Collins is a pretty crummy player and always has been. I thought SportsCenter's highlight package of him, with anchor Steve Levy doing the honors, was embarrassing at best and patronizing at worst. "Oh wow, look at that Collins screen!" It played to me like those ESPN "My Wish" segments with Chris Connelly they run during slow sports days in the summer, where gravely-ill children get to live out their fantasies with their favorite athletes and everyone jogs and falls down as little adorable Ryan scores the touchdown.
Those pieces are always tearjerkers and they do a wonderful job of making you feel like a doofus for about caring about sports so much in the first place. But they are touching and well done; both vital and exhilarating for the families involved. But Collins isn't a child and he certainly isn't dying. The only unfair thing that's happening to him is the way people around him are changing how they regard him, treating him like a special magical unicorn.
I don't often take up the cause of the athletes in the "us vs. them" battle they'd had with the media since long before any of us were born, but in this instance I absolutely think it's the ones with the tape recorders and the cameras who are missing the forest for the trees. Even the well-meaning media members -- and I think the overwhelming number of them are well-meaning -- don't quite seem to understand the hypocrisy of their actions.
The media is so eager to prove that gay athletes are no different in behavior, temperament and most importantly, ability, than straight athletes that they do everything short of dressing them up in neon pink uniforms to shine a spotlight on how they aren't different. They want so badly to show the world that being gay isn't a distraction that they spend an extra hour interviewing Collins and his teammates about what a distraction he's not being.
(We haven't discussed the media members with less-than-pure intentions, the ones fishing for juicy quotes or baiting people into saying derogatory or un-politically correct things. I thik we all know who they are without needing to name names.)
It's the same thing with Michael Sam, the University of Missouri defensive lineman who announced he was gay a couple weeks ago and has been besieged by media attention ever since, including a 30-minute press conference during the NFL's Scouting Combine where he had to answer some variation of the same question 20 different times.
Most defensive linemen projected to go somewhere between the third and fifth rounds of the draft don't get 30-minute press conferences, a point that Sam seemed intent on making when he repeated, multiple times, that he just wants to play football and not be thought of as "Michael Sam, the gay football player."
Was it surprising to anyone that Sam only put up 17 reps in the bench press (some wide receivers did more) or ran a pedestrian 4.91 in the 40-yard-dash? The scrutiny and attention he received likely prevented him from training as hard as he could have or performing at his best. Remember, he only made the decision to come out when he did because he and his agents sensed he was about to be outed anyway and he wanted to be in front of the story, "to own my truth," as Sam put it.
Now, if Sam slips a little in the draft and gets selected in, say, the sixth round, all these teams are gonna have to field questions about why he slid. WAS IT BECAUSE YOUR ORGANIZATION IS HOMOPHOBIC? Coaches and GMs are just going to love that line of questioning. Once he makes it to a training camp, his coaches will be asked -- daily -- how he's doing, what kind of progress he's making, why he's not getting more practice reps. Teammates will be beseiged with this stuff, the "How is he fitting in the locker room?" questions. Then analysis of his preseason games and so on.
Many people look at Sam and Collins and make the natural comparisons to Jackie Robinson. Obviously it fits in the regard of them being pioneers for a community of people, but I don't think the comparisons quite fit. For one, the league Robinson entered had considerably more animosity toward African-Americans both inside and outside of the locker room than what Collins or Sam have faced. Teammates and opposing players and coaches made no secret of their desire to not share a field with him. Fans screamed hateful things at him. The seating and restrooms in some ballparks were segregated at the time.
The bigger difference though was that Robinson could actually play. He was a Hall-of-Famer. By about his second month in the Majors the debate about whether he was good enough was over. Whatever arguments the minority of people still had by that point were based in intolerance rather than ability.
Collins has never been much of a player. Sam might be good or might be average, we don't know yet. What I'm pretty sure of though is that this attention, this scrutiny, this distraction stuff is not going to help him. These three-minute highlight packages gushing about screens and two rebounds, these 30-minute press conferences, they're not helping anyone but the media.
If you want to prove that gay athletes are no different than straight ones, then treat them that way. Otherwise we're just embarrassing ourselves with our sentimental, cloying pandering, and annoying their teammates and coaches with stupid, unnecessary questions. They're athletes, they just want to play ball. Give them the basic credit for not being cavemen and being professional enough to co-exist with a co-worker, even if they don't happen to share the same beliefs. (Besides, it's not like they haven't played with gay dudes before, it just hasn't been public.) I'm sure there's some fella in your office who's not exactly keen about Patty in accounting, but he's smart enough to keep his mouth shut about it and not get fired, and I'd trust the average shooting guard or pulling guard to do the same.
Maybe I'm just cranky because this just gives the networks one more guy to feature ahead of any Spur on the highlights. LeBron. The Slim Reaper. The Splash Brothers. The Beard. And now Jason Collins. Of course.