Sports

First openly gay basketball player Collins takes the court

Jason Collins, right, played his first game as an openly gay basketball player for the Brooklyn Nets last week. Collins’ progressive position is to be praised.  (credit: Courtesy of Joshua Kelly via Wikimedia Commons) Jason Collins, right, played his first game as an openly gay basketball player for the Brooklyn Nets last week. Collins’ progressive position is to be praised. (credit: Courtesy of Joshua Kelly via Wikimedia Commons)

Jason Collins finally got his chance at history Sunday night nearly 10 months after he came out as an openly gay NBA player. Not even receiving an invite to training camp, many questioned if Collins, who was set to become a free agent at the time of his announcement, would also be the first openly gay player to play a game in the NBA.

The Brooklyn Nets, in what they claim was purely a basketball-motivated decision, signed Collins as a center to a 10-day contract on Sunday and had him on the court that night against the Los Angeles Lakers. Collins’ playing time may be short-lived given the brief nature of the contract signed by Collins. The Nets have the option of re-signing Collins to an additional 10-day deal after this one expires but are then forced to either wave him, likely ending his season, or sign him for the remainder of the season.

Collins made waves when he stepped on the court partway through the second quarter, with ESPN, [ITAL]Sports Illustrated[ITAL], Buzzfeed and many other sports and non-sports news outlets tracking his movements all night. Speaking to a packed news conference, Collins received nothing but praise, which was completely unwarranted from his underwhelming stat line: 11 minutes, 0–1 shooting, two rebounds, one steal and five fouls. Most of Collins’s contributions don’t show up on a traditional stat line, so this wasn’t a necessarily bad night for the big man, but it also normally wouldn’t have warranted a press conference, much less a full house.

In a strange coincidence of sports timing, Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL prospect, was at the Scouting Combine over the weekend. Similar to Collins, Sam had a huge turnout for his media session. The unknowledgeable observer wouldn’t have been faulted for believing he was walking into the press conference for former Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel or potential first-overall draft pick defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, not a middle-to-low round player. Much like Collins, Sam’s on-the-field performance was completely unworthy of all the media attention.

There is no denying that Sam and Collins are more notable for their off-field lives than their athletic performance. Hundreds of players who will likely be drafted higher and/or have better NFL careers were at the Combine from Feb. 22–25, but no one cared. These players have to earn their media attention. The NBA had to make an exception to its jersey sales rules to actually print and sell Collins jerseys to meet the unprecedented demand, even though he may only be on the team for 10 days. His jersey is out-selling many of the NBA All-Stars.

It’s easy to see this situation and think that a story is being created out of nothing. The only meaningful qualities of these players when compared to their peers is their openness about their sexual orientation. Many of us would like to think we are an accepting enough society that one’s sexual orientation is just one aspect of their character, along with their sex, race, and religion, and all of the other factors that determine what kind of human being someone is.

This sense of equality is sadly a falsity that has pervaded our society. Discrimination in America is not as brutally apparent as it once was, but that by no way means that it is not still prevalent in our culture. Just as with all forms of entertainment, sports is a reflection of our own beliefs. Entertainment is designed to appeal to the masses, and no one wants to see things they do not agree with. That’s why it is such a big deal when the social issues that divide the nation are dealt with on a national scale. This type of social litmus test is one of the only true ways to see exactly where the nation sits on these controversial issues.

As much as we would like for an openly gay player in the NFL or NBA to be a non-issue, politics has shown in the past week that social inequality for LGBTQ people is very much still around. The most dramatic and headline-grabbing example of this inequality is Arizona’s religious freedom bill. This bill, which was vetoed by Arizona governor Jan Brewer on Wednesday night, sought to appeal to the First Amendment right to free expression of religion.

The bill posited that any business owner should be free from litigation if they choose to deny someone service due to a conflict with their religious beliefs. The example cited by one of the Arizona state senators who voted for the bill was a Jewish catering company that refused to supply pork for an event. The true protections in this bill were meant to help Christian shop owners, particularly those in wedding-related businesses, from having to compromise their beliefs to serve same-sex couples.

There is a fundamental difference between these two examples. In the catering example, the Jewish owners are choosing not to serve pork to any of their customers, regardless of their sexual orientation, race, or religion. This choice is perfectly acceptable. For the same reason, I can’t demand a sushi restaurant to serve me a T-bone steak. A customer has no reasonable expectation of being served pork if they contact a catering service that explicitly does not serve pork.

The real-life wedding examples are very different situations. In these instances, the owners are refusing to provide a service they would normally give to customers because of the sexual orientation, race, or religion of those customers. The bill would have essentially made discrimination legal and businesses would be able to hang signs in their windows saying “We Won’t Serve Gays,” just like the “Coloreds Only” signs of the pre-civil rights movement or the “Irish Need Not Apply” signs at the turn of the 20th century.

As one might expect, there was a massive uproar over this bill and it was vetoed for the second time, although the first veto occurred mostly because Brewer was protesting the state congress’s refusal to pass a budget. Many politicians — including both Arizona senators — and several businesses, like Apple Inc., begged Brewer to veto, but the NFL had the biggest threat to hold over Arizona’s head. The Glendale/Phoenix area is set to host the 2015 Super Bowl, but the NFL threatened to move the event if the bill passed. This threat was not an idle one, as the NFL previously moved a Super Bowl out of Arizona in 1992 when the state refused to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday.

The NFL is also being attacked for its acceptance of Sam and any other out future NFL player on the federal level. Jack Burkman, a federal lobbyist, went on a local Washington, D.C. news station to announce his proposal to push a bill through Congress that would ban openly gay players from playing in the NFL. Burkman claims that 36 members of the house and six in the Senate will sign on over the next three weeks.

At first glance, this plan may seem ridiculous, but under current federal law, discrimination against employees due to sexual orientation is completely legal. Discrimination is simply a fact of life for the LGBTQ community, as Congress refuses to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and 29 states do not have their own protections.

As much as we would all like to think that LGBTQ discrimination is a non-story, the sad fact of the matter is it’s not. Though Collins’s and Sam’s sexual orientations should be a non-issue, the sad state of protections for LGBTQ people mean that sexual orientation is still an issue in our culture, whether we want to talk about it or not. Therefore, their stories cannot be erased or ignored, as that act contributes to government-approved discrimination of an entire minority.