Although Jason Collins hasn't yet been a member of the Brooklyn Nets for a full week, his impact has already been felt around the world of sports and beyond. As the first openly gay player in one of North America's four biggest professional sports leagues, Collins is both breaking barriers and attempting to prove that he can be a member of a team without complicating the locker room or serving as a negative distraction. So far, so good — the Nets are 2-1 in their three road games since Collins's Sunday debut against the Los Angeles Lakers, and nothing he has done makes him look like an oddity or unwelcome presence. He's the same Jason Collins who became familiar to basketball fans many years ago.
Part of the reason that Collins seems to be succeeding as a trailblazing public figure, if not a particularly amazing basketball player, is that his coworkers and bosses seem to have created a welcoming atmosphere. That extends to the NBA as a whole, which has not shied away from explicitly supporting Collins and broadcasting his importance to its fan base. This extends to commerce — the league started to sell his No. 98 jersey on its official web store and saw it become the most popular jersey on the site within the first day.
The NBA has now decided to turn those impressive sales into positive social impact. In an announcement released Friday night, the league said that it will donate all proceeds from Collins jersey sales to two LGBT charities:
The NBA plans to donate proceeds from sales of Jason Collins jerseys to the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.
Collins became the league's first openly gay player when he signed with the Brooklyn Nets last Sunday, and his No. 98 jersey has been the top seller on NBAStore.com. He chose the number in tribute to Shepard, who was killed in a gay hate crime in 1998. Collins met Shepard's parents on Thursday when the Nets played in Denver.
The league says Friday the donations will total no less than $100,000, and it will also auction off Collins' autographed, game-worn jerseys to benefit the same organizations.
Collins says he is thrilled to help the organizations that "work tirelessly to ensure LGBT youth get the resources and assistance they need to be successful in life."
You can see a photo of Collins posing with the Shepard family here:
— Jason Collins (@jasoncollins34) February 28, 2014
It feels important to describe this donation as a decision by both Collins and the NBA as an organization, because that partnership speaks to what has made the past week such a positive one for both the player and league. While many leagues or teams could have taken this signing as business as usual and called little attention to Collins's sexual orientation, the NBA has rightfully acknowledged his employment with the Nets as a groundbreaking event in the history of professional sports. Instead of treating him like any other player, they have understood that he deserves attention. Commissioner Adam Silver and others have also been forward-thinking enough to know that it's a positive development in this history and not shied away from celebrating what many see as a problem for the macho world of sports.
In the process, the league has made anyone who considered Collins's presence in an NBA locker room a distraction look like a someone with a limited cultural perspective. By explicitly expressing what makes Collins such an important cultural figure, the NBA and the Nets have included him as part of the NBA family — which he was already, of course — and not cast him as some outsider trying to alter the shape of his profession. Instead, those who choose to see Collins as a distraction are the outsiders trying to introduce complications where few currently exist. The NBA presents Collins as a trailblazer, but as one whose time had come. There's nothing unnatural about his being a Net.
This approach might not have worked with every player — as I've written before, Collins is perhaps ideally suited to this role because he's so unremarkable on the court — but it's been an excellent fit for Collins so far. Yes, it hasn't even been a week. Nevertheless, the NBA appears to understand exactly how to allow Collins to succeed. It's a refreshing course of action in a sports world that can often be too small-minded for its own good.
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