The “why-is-this-news” folks who don’t understand what it’s like to be young and in the closet and scared and desperate for this sort of news are just going to have to deal with another bit of news.
Jason Collins was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people this week. It’s a constructed award, with no real scientific backing, discussed and detailed in print by celebrities with only a tangential relationship to the honoree. Collins, who came out of the closet one year ago and was signed by the Brooklyn Nets in February, is the only openly gay male sports participant working in the four major North American pro sports. His go-to qualifier happily keeps adding words to it because more and more athletes – women, pro prospects, college players, those who run up and down a soccer pitch – are coming out. This is why someone like Jason Collins is influential.
Despite his noted dedication to the defensive craft, Jason will be the first one to tell you he is a role player. His lone start with Brooklyn this season came because the team was resting its players on the last day of the regular season. His best skill is defending traditional low-post centers, a tradition that is slowly dying in the NBA. He barely made the league last season before somewhat surprisingly signing with the Boston Celtics. In pure basketball terms, his barely there employment makes absolute sense.
He wore No. 98 last year with the Celtics (and Washington, following a trade) in tribute to Matthew Shephard, and Jason decided to continue this tradition in 2013-14. Even before his season-long contract with the Nets was confirmed, the jersey became a top seller. Once his 10-day contract worked its way into a fully guaranteed turn, the NBA decided to donate all the profits from Collins’ jersey sales to the foundation that Shephard’s parents created, and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. This is why this man is the most influential player in the NBA, if not all of sports.
He barely averaged more than a point per game with the Nets this season. Brooklyn may not even have to play the sorts of centers (Roy Hibbert, Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard) that Collins succeeds in defending during their postseason run. He averaged single-digit minutes per game, and managed a single-digit Player Efficiency Rating. Amongst veterans, Jason Collins might be ranked lower than any other NBA player over the age of 30.
The Nets were under .500 when they signed Collins, and they’ve won two-thirds of their games since he became a part of their team. The expected media firestorm died down following a massive Los Angeles news conference announcing his hire in February. Nobody blinks when he enters a game. No press member makes a beeline for his locker following his short-minute, unspectacular stint on the court. No teammate has raised a hackle, and only one unnamed knucklehead has said something disparaging on the court.
Nobody gives a rat’s ass. This is why he’s influential. This is why this is news.
Because the NBA has carried on apace, because his team didn’t bat an eye, thousands of young men and women will gain the confidence to be honest with themselves – and, by extension, their families, social circles and extra-curricular organizations – through the way Jason Collins and the NBA handled this. The impact of both his 2013 declaration and Brooklyn’s 2014 signing and the subsequent lack of a fallout will result in ripples that won’t be felt by most, but will mean the world to a young community that needs this sort of news badly. It might be getting better, but we’re still so far away.
Unless the Nets continue their commitment to the class of the fin de siècle, Jason Collins may not have a job in the NBA next year. His on-court impact may only last for 172 regular season minutes, and spotty appearances in what could only be a first- or second-round postseason run. The league will move on, less insistent on the sort of low-post defenders (players like John Salley, Herb Williams, Charles Jones and Mike Brown) who used to hang onto employment deep into their late 30s. Collins will move onto whatever his Stanford-educated brain decides to chase down.
In just a calendar year between his announcement from last spring and this TIME snippet this spring, he’s changed some lives. He’s changed the way people perceive team sports, from those inside this sweaty dome, and for those outside watching on TV. Most importantly, he’s changed the lives and given confidence to those who may not have had nearly as much confidence just one year ago. For those teetering on the edge, wondering if it’s worth it to be honest with their parents, their schoolmates, their teammates, or even themselves.
This is why, to those who have even bothered to read this before skipping to the comment section, he is influential. This is why this is news.
Thank you, Jason Collins, for creating news for those who need this sort of news.
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