Jason Collins wasn't known as the active gay athlete throughout his career. He wasn't a trailblazer. He wasn't the story, he was just the fifth guy on the court that was willing to take defensive punishment, set hard screens, deter post players from getting good looks, and give six fouls.
But Collins's old role looked a lot like his new one: he didn't score, he grabbed two rebounds, and committed five fouls in his 11 minutes for the Brooklyn Nets in his first game since coming out as gay last April.
"We're just upset he didn't give up his sixth (foul)," coach Jason Kidd joked after Collins's debut.
Collins is the anti-stat-stuffing Andrei Kirilenko; his career averages are paltry, and he's got the lowest career PER (7.1) of any player that's played at least 700 games in NBA history. But he gained popularity in the analytics community as a player that significantly improved his team's plus-minus when he was on the court in his prime, and sure enough, the Nets were +8 in his 11 minutes, the best of any bench player.
"It felt good to go out there and foul people," Collins said with a smile.
Some (many) fans complained that he wouldn't have been signed if he wasn’t gay:
If Jason Collins wasn't gay he wouldn't have been picked up by anyone. All marketing. Just another reason why the NBA's a joke.
— Zack Davis (@Z_davis03) February 23, 2014
Sports find winners and losers in athletic competition, but it's also a lens through which we view the progression of American history, how we grapple with some of our broader philosophical questions. Muhammad Ali isn't just a legendary boxer for his ability to fool George Foreman into boxing himself to sleep after eight rounds, but also for a staunch anti-war sentiment that he was willing to give up everything at the peak of his physical prime and go to jail for. Curt Flood was a perfectly average baseball player (even his career OPS+, a stat adjusted for ballpark and season, was an exact league average of 100), but changed the game of baseball forever by refusing to accept a trade and taking his case to the Supreme Court. Part of Jeremy Lin's story is that he was an Asian-American man playing at an unprecedented level for Asian-American men in the NBA. These things matter, because they force us to digest an evolving world.
So would Collins have been signed if he was straight? Let's say, for the sake of argument, the answer is "no."
So what?Sports are ultimately about decisions. Players and executives alike make decisions that directly impact the games they play. Some are subtle, like hedging a pick-and-roll, pulling a guy's shorts to keep him from getting a rebound, or signing a D-Leaguer that breaks out in the NBA. But the larger decisions matter too. Branch Rickey's decision to sign Jackie Robinson, as well as Jackie Robinson's decisions to combat hatred with dignity, helped pave the way for black athletes in all four major sports.
Nearly seventy years after Robinson signed his contract, a black general manager can sign a gay black man to a professional contract, even one that's just ten days long. Jason Collins's wearing #98 for the Nets for Matthew Shepard, and Jason Collins matters because Matthew Shepard matters. He matters because there's a lot of kids in this world right now grappling with their own sexuality, if they'll be accepted for who they are, and a lot of those kids and their families are NBA fans.
That's not a comparison of the two, but a recognition of the progression of history. Despite the inevitable comparisons, well-intentioned they may be, Jason Collins is not Jackie Robinson. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Robinson on the cusp of his prime, in the hopes that he could put up with decades of vitriol and lead them as their best player. Collins is a hired gun on a ten-day contract in the twilight of his career, clawing for his last few moments of relevance on a struggling team.
Robinson broke barriers in a league full of players that publicly admonished him to a press and country that openly despised him. Players and managers wanted to prove that Robinson couldn't play in a league full of white men because his blackness would restrict him physically and intellectually; Collins is playing in a league that's trying to promote equality through various public service announcements and official statements from its executives. Collins retroactively coming out shattered the idea that a gay player couldn't function in the NBA, because, well, he was already there for over a decade.
But Jason Collins doesn't have to be Jackie Robinson, he just has to be Jason Collins. He's already advanced the league (or, at the very least, allowed the league to express its advancement) in incredible fashion on gay rights, more than any player before him. He is the stepping stone towards acceptance, not tolerance, and every movement towards social progress needs that first step. In ten, twenty, forty years and beyond, we'll remember that the Nets signed Jason Collins as the first openly gay active player in NBA history, not that they missed out on Glen Davis.
The Nets themselves have maintained that the decision was a basketball decision, but they weren't blind to the historical implications, they're just trying to ignore them. It's not like they chose Collins over LeBron James, they chose him over nobody. Collins wants to earn the spot not because of any marker of historical pride, but because he's a basketball player that's trying to prove he deserves more than a second ten-day contract. (The Nets still have an open roster spot, for the record.)
So if Collins earns a longer role, he'll earn it because he deserves it. The stark contrast between his and Andray Blatche's defense might do it alone.
Cynics may call it a PR move or inviting a media circus, and that's fine. So what if it was? Either way, he's opened the doors for a long-overdue social progression that no other player had the guts to do. Isn't that what matters?