There are moments in sports that transcend, that speak to issues or circumstances beyond the scope of the sport itself. The first football game after 9/11; The 1989 World Series earthquake; The miracle on ice; The Pat Tillman story; Jackie Robinson.
These are sports stories that involve some larger context or meaning. There are countless others. The story recently run by Sports Illustrated about NBA free-agent center Jason Collins disclosing that he is gay is one of these moments.
Recently there has been talk about as many as four NFL players possibly on the verge of disclosing their own homosexuality. There was talk about this possibly being the next ‘Jackie Robinson moment.’ Given the recent attention brought to the issue by NFL players, it might have been somewhat of a surprise that the issue was formally and finally addressed by a professional basketball player.
But this is not really a Jackie Robinson moment.
When Jackie Robinson broke the segregation barrier by breaking in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-1940s, there was no mistaking what was happening. It was known at the time that Robinson was the first African-American playing for the previously racially exclusive professional baseball league. The quality of his play, despite his pro segregation detractors, highlighted the fact that professional baseball was missing something as a direct result of the segregation policy.
Robinson demonstrated the cost, the self-defeating nature, of that particular form of bigotry. The loss of talent became clear. Whether people were for or against segregation, there is no question that the end of segregation improved the quality and competitiveness of baseball.
In a similarly important way, the Jason Collins story speaks to a different issue. We are regularly exposed to active professional sports players using homophobic slurs and epithets. While the public response to the Collins story has been largely positive, after its release there were almost instant reports of bigoted comments by professional players followed by apology. But Collins (and certainly others) had played in professional basketball for several years prior to his disclosure. He was a gay basketball player years ago, but we only just learned of it.
Where Robinson demonstrated that baseball would improve with the inclusion of African-Americans, the Collins announcement teaches us that the quality and competitiveness of basketball (and other sports) will not likely change. Unlike the end of segregation, gay players are not suddenly going to be added to professional sports. Gay players are already in professional sports. Despite Collins being the first active player in major American sport to disclose his homosexuality, his disclosure is proof that attempts to segregate based on sexual orientation are ineffective.
Among the lessons from the original Jackie Robinson moment was the realization that things in baseball were about to be different. Whether you agreed with it or not, things were about to be different.
Among the lessons from the Jason Collins moment is the realization that things are about to be the same. Whether you agree with his announcement or not, basketball (and baseball, and football, and hockey, etc.) will not be significantly different, because the players are already there. The games, the sports, will largely continue as they have already been.
What might be different? When we know something about a player, we have the opportunity to form opinions. We can react positively, negatively, or indifferently. If something changes, it is not because Collins is gay. He was gay all along. If something changes, it is because of how we are reacting to the information.
And that is up to us.