On Feb. 23, the Brooklyn Nets signed center Jason Collins to a 10-day contract. Collins was lucky to be in the league even the season before, but with the relatively wispy and aging Kevin Garnett forced into duty at center and Brook Lopez out for the season, Brooklyn badly needed a defensive stalwart up front.
The transaction resulted in a large news conference in the Staples Center media area, as the Nets were playing the Los Angeles Lakers later that night. Collins would be the first openly gay player in NBA history, and he dutifully and intelligently discussed that significant moment in the face of media contingents from the two largest media markets in the NBA. It meant a lot to millions, and it will mean a lot to millions more who will badly need role models as they come to terms with being born a certain way. When I wrote my column discussing the transaction, I cried. When I watched a clip of Jason Collins entering that night’s game later that evening, I cried.
And then, I forgot. And Jason Collins went back to being Jason Collins, the dude who moves his feet and defends the rim. And nobody even really noticed when the Nets and Collins ended what was a historic season in the second round of the playoffs down in Miami.
That is to say, it wasn’t a distraction. Collins, partially into his turn with the Nets, told reporters that only one NBA player had used denigrating language regarding his sexuality on the court, a small percentage of the language that many of us have used during a single game, played in less-informed times during our adolescence, much less half a season spent with 400-some opponents.
Now we have Tony Dungy, the sainted ex-NFL head coach, in the crosshairs as he talked up the supposed distraction St. Louis Rams draftee Michael Sam would be as he attempts to make an NFL roster as the league’s first openly gay player. Dungy has poorly backtracked on his initial comments, passing the buck onto his reaction to Sam’s since-canceled reality show that would document his bid to make the Rams, a show that was canceled two days after its announcement and months before Dungy gave his interview.
In a recent interview with TakePart Live, Jason Collins more or less called out Dungy’s competitive nature and coaching skills in hypothetically choosing to pass on drafting Michael Sam despite acknowledging that he has a place in the NFL:
Michael Sam may not be an NFL-caliber player. There are scads of NCAA award-winners (Sam was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013) who failed to create a lasting career or even make the NFL. The same is somewhat true for college basketball, because though its various player of the year trophies often go to the best player on the best, team, rare is the celebrated four-year starter or NCAA basketball scoring leader who extends similar production to the NBA. If Michael Sam is cut later this year, it will be for football reasons.
Tony Dungy is not about football reasons anymore, which is a shame. Sam came out to his Missouri Tigers teammates prior to the team’s 2013 season, and the squad went on to a 12-2 campaign, a top-five ranking, and to the encouragement of this writer nearly crying again (this time in public, and in front of his wife and kids and our server at Bruno’s) while eating knockwurst and drinking too many small glasses of Irish spirits while watching Missouri lose the SEC title game against Auburn because I went to Mizzou and I dug that team.
That is to say, Michael Sam wasn’t a distraction to those Tigers. Amongst teammates from the 18-to-22 set, far different and less worldly than Jason Collins’ relatively ancient Brooklyn Nets co-workers.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher recently relayed there were just a couple more reporters on hand at the team’s current training camp than usual, possibly following Sam alone. Even national sports media, starved for content in the dog days of summer, has just about forgotten Sam in the wake of him kissing the man he loves after being drafted by St. Louis, a completely unprecedented event that has never been replicated by a heterosexual man in the decades of sports draft history.
It’s over, and people like Tony Dungy are over. This is why, like ex-vice presidential candidates of recent past, they choose a life of punditry over actual work. Jason Collins’ Brooklyn Nets – those middling, mostly ignored Brooklyn Nets – are example enough. Clown time is over. Grow up or move aside.
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