BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 05/06/2013

Thiel: The gay pro jock — it’s complicated

NBA player Jason Collins’s disclosure that he was gay received a lot of support from fellow male athletes. Was it conviction, or political correctness?

At 34, Jason Collins is a free agent near the end of his NBA career and may not get another chance at pro ball. / Wiki Commons

The local NBA events of last week kept things sufficiently busy that the national NBA story of the week, Jason Collins’ declaration to Sports Illustrated that he was gay, passed on a secondary track. That can be a good thing, because it allows one to resist the tyranny of the urgent for — horror of digital horrors — a moment of reflection.

Seeing the widespread public support among prominent athletes for Collins was as gratifying as it was predictable.  If an athlete didn’t like what Collins represented, he or she would have been washed away in a tide of sincere indignation supplemented by a strong current of political correctness.

Or, to coin a new verb, Broussarded.

Chris Broussard, an ESPN hoops commentator, fell into deep water by saying on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” show that homosexuality is against Biblical teachings. Not breaking news, but it turned out to be broken news.

“Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle — or an openly, like, premarital sex between heterosexuals,” he said. “If you are living that type of lifestyle, the Bible says you know them by their fruits, it says that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ.”

I don’t share Broussard’s beliefs, and don’t quite know what an open rebellion would look like in this case. I do give him props for having the same courage of his convictions that Collins has for becoming the first active player in major American pro team sports to volunteer that he is gay.

But Broussard, whose views were known to ESPN beforehand and offered up this thoughts as an answer to questions and not as a publicity stunt, was pilloried for being intolerant (at best). The backlash forced ESPN into an apology.

“We regret that a respectful discussion of personal viewpoints became a distraction from today’s news,” the self-proclaimed worldwide leader said in a statement. “ESPN is fully committed to diversity and welcomes Jason Collins’ announcement.”

Wait a minute. ESPN knew Broussard’s views. That’s why they put him on the show. Why have any regrets? How can his views be a distraction when they were a main point? And if ESPN welcomes diversity, why posture as if there is shame in Broussard’s views, which  were diverse from ESPN’s corporate take?

This sort of conflicted thinking on the issue is spreading about the landscape. While the dismay in the gay community was predictable, a group called Family America was calling for Broussard’s resignation — and it’s a Christian group.

“Chris Broussard’s comments on Monday were really a hateful attack on Jason Collins and a profound misrepresentation of the compassionate teachings of Jesus Christ,” said Faithful America’s executive director, Michael Sherrard, in an interview with The Christian Post Thursday. “This is not how Christians who live in community and love another as called by the Gospel of Jesus Christ are to behave towards one another.”

Well then. I’ll leave the Biblical fight to the more theologically gifted.

Getting back to sports impact, the London Observer reported over the weekend eight soccer players in the English premiership have come out in private to the head of England’s Professional Footballers Association.

Seven of the players said their reason for not going public was potential media and fan reaction, not that of the locker room.

“The danger is what happens when a player comes out and gets loads of support and attention, but then starts playing badly. The worry is that fans will start getting on their backs and they may lose the confidence of their manager and it could be connected to their sexuality.”

England once before had an openly gay footballer. Striker Justin Fashanu came out in 1990 and played until 1994. But he committed suicide in 1997 at 37. The Observer reported he said he had not been prepared for the backlash that followed his disclosure, and that his football career suffered “heavy damage” as a consequence.

Yes, Fashanu’s ordeal was two decades ago. It was England, not the U.S. It was soccer, not basketball. But the current apprehension of the eight footballers speaks to the deeply, and often religiously rooted, fears in Britain, which are not that different from the American sports culture.

What is said by athletes for public consumption and what is felt often are two different things. Often in the same person. Two years ago Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 by the NBA  for uttering a gay slur caught by TV cameras, for which he apologized.

Last week in a tweet Bryant seemed all enlightened:

So . . . which is it, Kobe? Maybe it’s both. Or neither. Whatever the truth, it does matter.

Some players are going to reject a gay teammate, some coaches won’t want the perceived headache and some ownerships will feel financial pressures from both sides of the issue. As games, interviews and Twitter become an ever-increasing platform for demonstrative religious expression for athletes, those players and their fans who share Broussard’s interpretation will not be bashful in making themselves heard, because they are the ones who feel their values are under siege.

While there is a broad analogy to the racial integration of major league baseball, in America, sexual orientation isn’t the same as having blacks and whites sharing the same locker rooms, Constitution, workplaces, schools and neighborhoods. Or Democrats and Republicans (or Huskies and Cougars) co-existing without discrimination.

This is about the last great male social taboo in America — a new kind of guy in the group shower, the team bus and long, often boring road trips. Even if it’s the same guy from the previous season. Some on the bus won’t cope. Telling them to “get over it” is way too easy.

Collins’s decision was a breakthrough. But as a free agent at 34, he may not be in uniform in the fall to experience what comes of coming out. The hope is that it’s nothing. But gay male athletes are staying closeted into 2013 because the issue of sexuality and sports in America is way complicated, mostly by money, as ESPN’s PR pratfall demonstrated (and as was the case in England, it was also tragic).

ESPN didn’t want to irk any among gays, conservatives, teams, leagues, Collins or Broussard. Nor is there a monolithic view among Christians.

In U.S. male team sports, millions of dollars, and many jobs, rise and fall on game and seasonal outcomes. When things don’t work out, blame so often falls, quickly and reflexively, upon the vulnerable. The best way to protect the vulnerable is when people stick together.

For quite a while now in America, that custom has been steadily disappearing.



  • ReebHerb

    This is going beyond ‘live and let live’. I lost interest in the NBA when it was all about gangsta intimidation. How about just playing basketball and leave out the social engineering?

  • Ted Van Dyk

    Interesting piece, Art. I’m a bit surprised that the Collins coming-out got so much attention. He is a free agent and at 34 is not expected to be an active NBA player next year. One interesting sidelight: He had not told his fiancee of several years, before his announcement, that he was gay.
    It’s been known for many years that there were gays in sports. When I was a UW student, 1951-5, there were at least two Husky football players who were known to be gay. One was an all-star. After their active playing days, former UW and NFL back
    Dave Kopay and former Redskins tight end Jerry Smith both publicly announced that they were gay. A former No. 1 Redskins draft choice of that time also was known to be gay. The present Golden State general manager, a Mt. Vernon guy, has come out.
    Men’s locker rooms and women’s locker rooms, expecially in the WNBA and tennis,
    presumably contain gay competitors. A large number of women’s callege basketball coaches are known to be lesbian. But no one makes a big deal of it. Collins probably belongs in the “former player” category since he’s played few minutes over the past couple seasons. An announcement might have been more significant had it come from a present NBA superstar. But, really, haven’t we come sufficiently far in eradicating barriers, that this no longer should be a big deal? Who really cares, except for cable-TV types trying to generate controversy and audience around
    the issue?

    • art thiel

      Ted, lots of people don’t care. Just as obviously, many do care, and fear it, otherwise many gay athletes would be known. Gays don’t hide because they think the closet is fun. They think it is a little safer. Those of us heteros who don’t care to discriminate and shrug “what’s the big deal?” can’t know what it is like to be told abusively that one is a freak.

      To your point: No, we haven’t come very far regarding this taboo. I’ve been in enough locker rooms to hear the bigotry and intolerance. It’s a lot like some churches.

  • notaboomer

    collins is a 7 footer with nba experience who wants to play. if an nba team doesn’t sign him, then the nba will be discriminating against gay men. see how this works?

    • art thiel

      Brilliant, nota. Knew you’d nail the key narrative.

  • Michael Kaiser

    It sure does not take a lot of courage these days to beat the gay bandwagon, especially if one is a member of the mainstream press. And contrary to your spin on one aspect of the matter, I did not get the impression, regardless of how hard the blatantly partisan press tried to spin it, that the athletic community offered its “widespread support.” I am almost certain too that some held their tongues for fear of being pilloried by editorial writers masquerading as news reporters, which really is what the modern press has become. I have coffee sometimes with one of your old PI colleagues, someone whose online stories apparently consistently got more hits than almost anyone’s else. This person also agrees with my assessment. The quality of the medium has changed–dramatically. But then I guess anyone can call themselves a member of the “press” these days. But I digress.
    At least we know what you are–a columnist. No pretense that we are supposed to be getting straight news. Enjoyed my day in Sacramento today–home forever of the Kings. Off to see the Stones on Wednesday. I guess they are not making a stop in southern Alaska.

    • art thiel

      And your metrics on the athletic community were . . . what?

      As the column pointed out, those who supported said so, and those who didn’t shut up. That’s the problem. Homophobes aren’t going to change because one guy came out. It’s going to be a lot more difficult in the locker room than is being discussed.

      Sometimes, Michael, you just don’t read before engaging your screed.

      Hope the Stones sing for you “Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Because you rarely do in sport

  • seattlenative57

    I suppose we’ve reached a point in our society where it’s important to declare our sexual orientation in order to …? This is where I get stuck. What is the importance? Is it to ensure we’re all included? To eliminate discrimination? If it’s OK to say you’re gay, is it OK to say you don’t agree with the lifestyle? Honestly, I don’t understand the importance of announcing your sexual orientation. If you own it, live it. And if people disagree, so be it. We have laws against hate and discrimination. Live your life and leave me out of it … or not. I’ll decide. Sexual orientation is personal and should be kept that way. And those who don’t respect the right to be gay should be prosecuted.

    • art thiel

      There’s only so much the law can do to protect someone whose sexual orientation provokes sufficient fear and hate to deny them, abuse them or discriminate against them, especially if they are smart about cover tracks.

      It’s important because it’s been deemed unacceptable by many in team sports, for no damn good reason.

      Sorry if righting a wrong intrudes on your day.

      • seattlenative57

        It’s no intrusion. And I certainly don’t require your sarcastic apology. Excuse me for not understanding everything. After all, you’re the one that called it complicated.

        • art thiel

          You know what? You’re right. My bad. Apologies.