Witnessing the Ho-Hum History of Jason Collins


One of my favorite lines from the film Rudy is when Rudy's dad first sees Notre Dame Stadium and he musters up all emotion to utter, "This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen."

That is what I expected to feel when I had the opportunity to sit in Staples Center and watch Jason Collins take the court as the first active openly gay professional male athlete in one of the four major American team sports (phew, we certainly have added enough modifiers to that statement).

The gay world and the sports world have played such vital roles in my life and I've been one of the many gay fans who have spent years craving a moment where our passions collide and an openly gay professional athlete enters a game.

We have built this moment up for so long that I couldn't believe it was going to happen in a time and place where I would be lucky enough to witness it.

However, reality ended up being nothing like my imagination.

When my husband and I picked up our tickets at Staples, I said, "big game, huh?" The ticket office guy looked confused as to how the tragic Kobe-less Lakers could be in any kind of a big game right now. He clearly didn't know that a barrier was about to be broken.

We took our seats and I wondered why no one was talking about the fact that history was going to occur just a few feet in front of us. Finally the sushi-eating couple behind us started talking about it. The man said, "oh, Jason Collins is going to play tonight." His wife asked, "which one is he again?" The man replied, "He's the local guy from Harvard-Westlake High School."

Oy. Did anyone understand the gravity of the situation?

Sitting next to me was a 20-something die-hard Lakers fan who thought if he timed his scream perfectly, it would cause Deron Williams to miss his free throws. With his exuberance for yelling things, I wondered what would be uttered when Collins took the court, but all I got was silence. He did express concern over which team we were rooting for though. When he asked, we said we are Lakers fans, but we are excited about Jason Collins' historical moment. He replied, "Oh, that's cool."

He didn't care. And he wasn't alone.

You can see it on my video of when Jason was announced into the game. We screamed our support and we looked around to find polite applause and a smattering of people standing, but it wasn't the Rudy type moment that it was in my head.

But, it also wasn't negative. We didn't hear any audible boos or anti-gay epithets yelled. The religious protestors outside the game apparently are there for every game. The entire experience ended up being void of pomp and circumstance.

Chalk some of the non-reaction up to the fact that us Lakers fans don't really know how to cheer for anything right now, but overall I think the ho-hum reaction indicates fan progress.

What about on the court though? We've all endured ad nauseam questions about how teammates and opponents will react to someone with a different orientation on the court. I watched so intently -- Jason put his hand up for a high-five, was Paul Pierce going to grant the request? Yes, he did. Jason made a good play and Joe Johnson slapped him on the butt. He was knocked down on defense and three of his teammates helped him up. There was nothing different at all. In retrospect, why would there be?

After a few minutes on the court, my husband stopped snapping pictures, my giddiness subsided and it became evident that Jason Collins didn't want or need any pomp or circumstance; he was just a guy who wanted to live authentically and still have his job. Not too much to ask.

The muted response is not to say that there is no work to do. I am conducting a research project on the social media reaction to Michael Sam and Jason Collins and I can assure you that not everyone is happy about there being openly gay players in sports leagues. In addition to those who are openly vitriolic, there is a larger group of fans who express a common theme of what ESPN's Kate Fagan smartly calls "coded language" like, "Why is this news?" or "Why can't he just keep it to himself?"

The most common theme in initial data is a mocking proclamation along the lines of, "I am going to announce that I am straight." Trust me, I don't like these big announcements any more than you do. I look forward to when a gay player can just bypass the hype and go straight to mentioning his family casually in interviews and have no problem kissing his husband in public after a game like professional bowler Scott Norton did.

There is also a lot of work to do outside of the sports world.

Arizona is one of a handful of states considering legislation that would make it legal to refuse service to LGBT people. Perhaps my Mom said it best, when she replied to my Jason Collins exuberance by saying, "I hope when the Brooklyn Nets play in Phoenix there will be a place for Jason Collins to eat." I will add to this by noting that if Collins lived in Uganda or Nigeria or 75 other countries, he would be like the thousands of LGBT people desperately seeking asylum because of who they are.

Perhaps when those inequalities are gone I will get my Rudy level of emotional response.

Photo Credit: Matt Harris