The morning of April 29, 2013, many, including myself, thought the sports landscape had changed forever. Jason Collins announced he was a homosexual through an essay written in Sports Illustrated, thus becoming the first active gay male athlete in the history of American teams sports. The revelation was met with shock, but it was also met with near unanimous praise. Names like LeBron James, David Stern, Jason Kidd, Dwayne Wade, Charles Barkley and even President Obama all provided tremendous positive feedback for Collins’ decision to come out.
Collins was to be to millennials what Jackie Robinson was to the World War II generation. The universal praise amongst Collins’ athletic peers gave us the optimism that the testosterone-laden, Neanderthal locker room atmosphere would allow itself room for the gay athlete. Collins instantly became an American icon, representing a milestone social progress the sports world. It absolutely felt as though Collins precipitated a cultural shift that piggybacked on the momentum created by the gay rights movement.
However, today, training camps are in session, preseason games are underway, and Jason Collins is still a free agent. It looks as though our April 15, 1947-Jackie Robinson Day-moment will have to wait awhile. Throughout the excitement of the announcement and the adulation for his courage, the masses ignored that Collins was just a marginal NBA player at this point in his career. Those not in tune with the way sports works forgot this as well: general managers rarely embrace symbolism and sentimentality without the promise of real returns on their investment.
Collins is, unfortunately, a high-risk/low-reward signing in most markets. Why sign a 4pts, 2 Rebs-aging veteran, with the possibility of causing the dreaded (cop-out excuse) “locker room” issues, especially when you can find the same productivity without the potential headache? This is why Brendan Haywood, James Bernard, Marcus Camby, Greg Stiemsma, Dwayne Jones, Robert Sacre and others are currently on NBA rosters and Collins is still looking to collect an NBA check. Collins didn’t eradicate the fear of the gay the athlete in the locker room; if anything, his free agency is unveiling it for all to see.
If pressed, GMs have to answer how the names mentioned above can provide better services than a proven solid defender and rebounder who went toe-to-toe with some of the game’s best big men in their prime. That’s a dance executives are more than willing to sit out. But luckily for GMs, the Jason Collins story has faded away quietly in the backdrop, concealed by more attractive, less controversial headlines heading into the season.
Collins announcement was never going to be like Jackie Robinson’s. Robinson had an owner in Branch Rickey who chose Robinson to be the one because of Robinson’s abilities. Collins doesn’t have that luxury. All Collins has are a legion of Pee Wee Reeses who are willing to embrace him. But that means very little if a general manager’s office door remains shut. At this point, for the sake of the league, David Stern and executives should try to coerce those coaches who understand the value of Jason Collins as a player to take a flier on the big man. While the Collins story remains quiet for now, Collins remaining a free agent would be a missed opportunity by the NBA to remain ahead of the curve on social issues.