Tolerating The Intolerant: Reaction To NBA’s Jason Collins
Seeing as it is now the face of gay rights in U.S. professional sports, the NBA old guard should invest in some tolerance and semantics education, STAT.
While the reaction to Jason Collins’ coming out was largely positive and most offered support and gratitude, there were also a few wrinkles and misconceptions that warrant a discussion.
On a day when one of their own made history and took a giant leap of faith by becoming the first active male athlete in any major U.S. professional sport to publicly acknowledge that, yes, he is a gay man, the sentry of lifers still holding court got it wrong. Some tried their best – I’m looking at you, Charles Barkley. And you, Kenny “The Jet” Smith. Others….chief among them ESPN NBA analyst, Chris Broussard, plunged into astounding career-ruining narcissism and bigotry in front of a global audience. By the time Barkley, Smith and the rest of the Inside The NBA/TNT gang opened their show Monday night with thoughts on the Jason Collins story, there was much tap dancing and tip-toeing and the caveats and “buts” were flying freely. The only former player in the TNT discussion to keep it simple (and real) was Shaquille O’Neal, who spoke not to Collins being gay or sex or sexuality, but rather, expressed how happy for and proud of Jason Collins he was; that he was a man of character and heart and that he was thrilled to see him take the leadership mantle on this. While Barkley and Smith both had positive things to say, they were also uncomfortable and, by the end of their monologues, it was evident that they had not received the memo. I will explain.
But first, let’s rewind a bit.
In case you missed it, male professional athletes in the U.S. live in a pheromone filled world, where it is a runaway test-fest (that’s testosterone) to see who can prove their manhood (over and over and over again), usually by lifting the most in the weight room, or dare I say, by bagging the most chicks on the road. Make no mistake about it, there is a reason we are in the year 2013 and have only just now had an active male athlete come out. Two years ago, this would have, sadly, been unthinkable. Hell, even one year ago it’s hard to envision.
Given this insular world, it is not surprising (jarring and surreal in their adolescence, yes) that a little less than a month ago, legendary coach Phil Jackson made bizarre statements on a HuffPost Live panel with former Lakers’ colleagues Shaq and Kurt Rambis while the three were discussing the retiring of The Big Aristotle’s No. 34 jersey in Los Angeles (you’ll want to watch the short video at the beginning of this article). The conversation, somehow, turned to gay athletes in the NBA when Huffington’s Front Page Editor, Alana Horowitz, posed this question:
“My question is about homosexuality in sports. I’m wondering if you think that organizations and players and athletes could be or need to be more inclusive of gay athletes and more welcoming toward the gay community in general?”
The always self-assured Jackson, stepping over the words of Shaquille O’Neal, interrupted:
“That’s a ridiculous question. I mean, none of us have probably ever seen it in all our careers and there’s really no inclusiveness to be had, so it’s really a strange question. I’ve never run into it in all my career. I don’t know if Shaq or Kurt have ever run into it, but I have never run into it in my career.”
Jackson’s uncomfortableness with the subject was palpable. Just as his repeated, debasing use of the word “it” was very telling.
Ok, so that’s Phil Jackson. NBA legend, Hall of Famer. Definitely part of the old guard. Surely this is just a generational thing, to believe that gay athletes are as rare as mystical unicorns. Right?
For the most part, the Jackson generation hedged (Bernard King a notable exception); the Barkley generation are about halfway there and are trying (Magic Johnson, as always, ahead of his peers in this regard); the Shaq-Kobe generation are all aboard and the Bradley Beal-Kenneth Faried generation are ecstatic (Faried was raised by two mothers). Let’s not forget the likes of NFL heroes Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe.
And then there’s Chris Broussard. The 44 year-old NBA analyst (this being the Barkley gen), discussing the Collins story on ESPN yesterday, couldn’t help but to put it in the context of his own religion, espousing the virtues of Christianity and stating that he ascribed to the following notion:
“If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin…I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God.”
Broussard, calling into question Collins’ skill as a player (a “third string” guy), his age, stats and pretty much his future ability to be “normal” in a team locker room, also indicated that he has been in touch with dozens of players (past and present), GM’s, executives, agents, etc, and “there are many Christians in the NBA” and there are a lot who “disagree” but won’t say so publicly. So……..(a) Where are all these Christians in the NBA? (b) Actually, where are all these GM’s, players and agents, because I don’t believe Broussard and think he was just stirring the pot; (c) Disagree with what, exactly? With who someone is? I don’t get it; (d) Why is a basketball writer on a sports show getting into this; and (e) Since when does being Christian preclude one from also being tolerant? Aren’t Christians, after all, supposed to “love thy neighbor as thyself”?
Broussard, sublimely out of line (and out of touch), issued a non-apology apology today.
So here’s the thing. There’s a new talking point being pushed in the mainstream. It goes a little something like “let’s tolerate the intolerant”. I’ll go back to (in part) Charles Barkley’s comments during last night’s pre-game on TNT:
“….You should be whatever you want to be. But I also want to say the other part. We live in the greatest country in the world. If you don’t like it, you should be able to say that and not get crucified. People should be able to disagree if they don’t like it and not get crucified. There are people who don’t like gay people.”
One may suspect that Barkley, here, was referencing Broussard, who ran into a hailstorm of backlash following his comments earlier in the day. After Barkley, Kenny Smith wondered aloud if maybe “people in this Turner building might be living an alternative lifestyle”. Cue the Twilight Zone music. Hey, Kenny – they’re everrrrywhere.
There are several other problems with the above language. While no doubt, Barkley and Smith had wonderful things to say about Jason Collins and are, by all accounts, supportive, it seemed that the more they talked, the bigger the hole they could have crawled into. First, as to Sir Charles – Collins did not choose to “be whatever he wanted”. He happens to be gay. Not a choice, like choosing a Superman cape for Halloween or enlisting in the Army (all that you can be, right?). Second, disagreeing, in this instance, is not merely expressing an opinion to which you are entitled. Express it. By all means. But call it what is is: bigotry. Period. As to Kenny Smith’s comment about “alternative lifestyle”……this choice of words (see, you can choose your words) is part of the problem. It indicates “different”. “Not like me”. “Unequal”. So choose carefully.
And there’s one other thing. When it comes to male homosexuality, why is it that it’s almost always reduced to sex? In this way, gay women do have it easier. Their identities are not purely pegged as being about sex or sexual identity. For men, it is entirely different. Charles Barkley actually began his comments last night by saying “Why is it my business, like why is it our business, who somebody has sex with, that’s the first thing I thought.” See, that’s the problem. This is not about Jason Collins and his sex life. It is about who he is, fundamentally, as a person, struggling for acceptance in our society – and I use the word “fundamentally” because there is this ingrained notion in our country in particular, that being gay is all-defining, all-consuming. For the openly gay person, it is not. We need to get to a place where we understand that one’s sexuality is only one part of the individual. Just as being gay is only a part of who George Takei is (he’s also Mr. Freaking Sulu, Asian and a social media supahstar – pardon the digression). On Sunday, perhaps, Jason Collins was still tethered to his sexual identity as a closeted gay man. On Monday, no more. He is also a professional basketball player, a twin brother, a black man, a Stanford alum, a son, grandson, uncle, world traveler and many other things. Now, an activist. I call him brave.
The fact is, homosexuality is the last bastion of still-tolerated bigotry. While old-schoolers like Charles Barkley or Kenny Smith meant well yesterday, it is clear that they do not fully understand and that there is a good bit of evolving thought that still needs to occur. There is nothing to “agree” or “disagree” with concerning someone’s sexuality. If you’re giving license to this “disagreement”, then you are condoning the notion that Jason Collins – and any other gay person, for that matter – is making a “choice”, a conscientious decision, to be gay. Could we say the same for Sir Charles or The Jet? That they choose their skin color; that they choose to live a “black lifestyle”? That we “disagree” with that? Absolutely not, and if we did, we would justly be called out for what we are (and there’s no need to use that word again).
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