Jason Collins, Social Change and the Importance of Sports

Sports has always been about more than just winning and losing and has always been laden with symbolism that matters.
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My 7-year-old son, possibly the biggest sports fan on the planet, had the Nets-Lakers game on his radio as he fell asleep on the night of Jason Collins' first game in Brooklyn. As I tucked him in, we heard a talk radio host ask, "Why did the Nets sign Jason Collins?" My son's answer was immediate and visceral: "To win, obviously!" While he and I talk often about my research on sports and social change, his point was: sports is sports. The Nets want to win games, not play politics. This same sentiment was echoed by Collins himself before the game: "Right now, I'm focused on trying to learn the plays... I don't have time to really think about history right now."

Even my young son knows that there is much more to it. So does Collins, of course. When Collins publicly came out in Sports Illustrated last spring, he revealed that he chose jersey number 98 to honor the memory of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was brutally murdered in a 1998 hate crime.

The history of racial integration of major college sports can help us understand the politics of the inclusion of openly-LGBTQ athletes in college and professional sports. This history teaches us that sports has always been about more than just winning and losing and has always been laden with symbolism that matters.

At the University of Mississippi, the Colonel Rebel mascot reminded many of a plantation owner, and the Ole Miss marching band uniforms resembled those of Confederate soldiers. Many Southern school bands and fans played "Dixie" and waved Confederate flags at football games. The fight over these symbols was central to the struggle for racial integration and inclusion at these schools.

Historians also remind us that it was an important symbolic step for colleges to recruit African-American athletes who would represent the school. Just a few years before, these same players would not have been allowed through the gates as students. As historian Charles H. Martin wrote in a 2008 chapter on Southern football and race, white fans cheering on a Black player and seeing him as a representative of their school marked a massive cultural shift. With the inclusion of African-American football players, he wrote:

At least some whites had come to view blacks students, especially strong, fast male students, as an asset to be voluntarily sought out, rather than a liability forced upon the school by the federal government. This marked the beginning of the shift from limited desegregation... toward real integration and inclusion.

Finally, with the racial integration of college sports, we see how sports and sexuality have a long, interconnected history. White segregationists feared that allowing African-American athletic participation would signal a level of social equality that would lead to interracial dating and, ultimately, miscegenation. Georgia State Senator Leon Butts reasoned that a state law to ban integrated sports was necessary because: "When Negroes and whites meet on the athletic fields on a basis of complete equality, it is only natural that this sense of equality carries into the daily living of these people," while the arch-segregationist Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett said: "If integrated teams played in Mississippi... where would they eat? Are they going to want to go to the dance later and want to dance with our girls?"

As I've been following the public conversation about Collins and University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who quite possibly will be the first publicly-gay NFL player, I recall conversations from a generation or two ago about sports and social equality, sports and sex, sports and the use of common facilities like dining halls and locker rooms. Sociologically and historically, there are important differences in the way that race and sexuality operate in American society. But this historical analogy reminds us of the cultural and symbolic importance of sports as we watch Collins and Sam break barriers on the basketball court and the football field.

Sports have always been about more than just winning. They have always been central to our culture, they have always been battlegrounds on the road to social progress. Segregationists knew this when they opposed racial integration of football in the 1950s. Jason Collins knew this as he suited up for the Nets. My son knows it, too.

My son is a diehard Miami Heat fan. But, he'll proudly wear Nets jersey number 98 as soon as they are available in a child's size medium.

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