Media reaction to Jason Collins unwarranted

May 5, 2013

“Jason Collins: The First 24 Hours.” That was the headline on the Sports Illustrated website on Tuesday afternoon, a day after Collins announced he is gay. Sports Illustrated, ESPN and just about any sports journalism site you can think of have published responses, reactions, hopes, plans and congratulations to Collins.

Monday’s announcement, first depicted on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “The Gay Athlete,” was a big deal. Collins is the first active player in any major American sport to announce he is homosexual. The responses ranged from the good (Kobe Bryant offered support), the bad (Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace tweeted he doesn’t understand homosexuality) and the ugly (ESPN analyst Chris Broussard noted Collins’ sin while insinuating homosexuality is a lifestyle).

The media ate this story up. They had been anticipating this day for at least a year. The tides of social expectations had been changing, and eventually someone was going to come out. But it was as if these writers, analysts, fans and commentators were surprised — how could they have been?

As much as ESPN and Sports Illustrated would like to blow this up with interviews of Collins — an attempt to make him the poster boy he has no interest in being — they have taken the most important part of his announcement away.

Headlines proclaiming Collins as “the” gay athlete move this conversation in the wrong direction. Collins is a gay athlete. There are more athletes just like him in the NBA, NFL and high school sports. Collins is just the beginning.

While credit and gratitude should be given where they are due — someone had to be brave enough to be first — let’s stop worrying about bad reactions, which is something Collins could probably care less about, and instead look forward to when he will step onto an NBA court next season. If Collins is signed by an NBA franchise, that moment will be historic. He will receive hugs, handshakes and maybe a standing ovation. He may also receive taunts and slurs. But that should be the extent of it — admiration and, hopefully, only a few jeers.

People never imagined an athlete could be gay until recently because male athletes are portrayed as macho, and societal stereotypes dictate that no manly person would ever be gay. But that logic has now been overturned. The manliest of athletes should have it in their best interest to support Jason Collins.

So why don’t we all leave Collins alone for a few months? Let him prepare for what will be his most important basketball season ever without constantly being in the spotlight. Let’s leave room for countless gay athletes to be who they are — finally. Let’s quit pretending that locker room situations will be awkward and stop trying to frame this in the broader gay rights debate. And please, can someone sign Collins to at least a one-year contract? For his sake — not mine, the media’s or the fans’. Collins just wants to play basketball.

Sam Barder is a contributing columnist. Email him at opinion@nyunews.com.

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