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Friday, May 3, 2013

History is certain to hail Jason Collins’ courage

George Scione

Jason Collins will never be confused with Bill Russell on the basketball court. The 34-year-old journeyman center/forward – who has averaged 3.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 0.5 blocks per game in his 11-year NBA career with six teams – will never compare to the game’s greatest players. But earlier this week, Collins joined an elite class of athletes named Robinson, Davis, O’Ree, Gibson, Ashe, Johnson and Woods.

Yes, Robinson is in reference to Brooklyn Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. ...

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Jason Collins will never be confused with Bill Russell on the basketball court. The 34-year-old journeyman center/forward – who has averaged 3.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 0.5 blocks per game in his 11-year NBA career with six teams – will never compare to the game’s greatest players. But earlier this week, Collins joined an elite class of athletes named Robinson, Davis, O’Ree, Gibson, Ashe, Johnson and Woods.

Yes, Robinson is in reference to Brooklyn Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.

Ernie Davis was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy at Syracuse in 1961. Willie O’Ree broke the National Hockey League’s color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958.

There are others who broke that racial barrier: Willie Thrower (first to quarterback in the NFL with the Chicago Bears in 1953); the trio of Earl Lloyd/Charles Cooper/Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (NBA barrier busters in 1950 with the Washington Capitols, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks, respectively); and for car enthusiasts there is Wendell Scott (winner of the 1963 NASCAR event at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla.).

OK, let’s be clear – Collins isn’t breaking any racial barriers. He may be African-American, but that’s just coincidental. Still, he’s doing what all those listed above also did in their careers, breaking social barriers and opening the door for all those to follow him.

In the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, Collins became the first openly gay athlete in North America’s four major professional sports.

Throughout history, athletics has crossed over from simple children’s games to an instigator of political and social change – think of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the podium after winning the gold and bronze medals at the 1968 Olympics.

Perhaps change isn’t strong enough a description. What Collins, like these athletes before him, has done is alter the reality of close-minded individuals and force the issue of equality and respect for others who may not share the same skin color or, gasp, sexuality.

The battle Collins and others in the LGBT community are waging is a civil rights issue. That in itself scared his family, who has witnessed firsthand the injustice those of little minds enforced.

“My maternal grandmother was apprehensive about my plans to come out publicly,” Collins told SI. “She grew up in rural Louisiana and witnessed the horrors of segregation. During the civil rights movement she saw great bravery play out amid the ugliest side of humanity. She worries that I am opening myself up to prejudice and hatred. I explained to her that in a way, my coming out is preemptive. I shouldn’t have to live under the threat of being outed. The announcement should be mine to make, not TMZ’s.”

He’s right. He should not be afraid to live his life to the fullest in every facet. It’s a preemptive strike that was needed. Not just for him, but for a nation of athletes – both young and old – to move forward with their chins held high and no fear of reprisal for simply being who you are.

It was only a matter of time before a gay athlete would be forced to fight against the American view of don’t ask, don’t tell. While it was erased in United States military circles, it has always been an unwritten rule of the locker room – a standard too many are afraid to break, especially while still trying to be part of a team that may have ignorant members in the next stall over.

“The strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage,” wrote Collins in his SI essay.

“Less than three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future. Here was my chance to be heard and I couldn’t say a thing. I didn’t want to answer questions and draw attention to myself. Not while I was still playing.”

Maybe Collins is opening the door to reality for some folks, who still believe you can catch gay in the showers.

Like his skin color, Collins was born gay. It’s not an illness or disease. It’s not an evil and disgusting way of life as the Westboro Baptist Church would have the world believe.

In fact, it was a political figure and old friend who awoke this burning desire to set himself free.

“I realized I needed to go public when Massachusetts congressman Joe Kennedy, my old roommate at Stanford, told me he had just marched in Boston’s 2012 Gay Pride Parade. I’m seldom jealous of others, but hearing what Joe had done filled me with envy,” Collins wrote. “I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, “me, too.’”

Now, thanks to Collins, athletes at all levels can stand up tall and simply be who they are. High school, college and professional sports are now open to everyone of any sexual persuasion.

All because some journeyman NBA player had the intestinal fortitude to dribble into the spotlight in crunch time, take one for the team and become a legend in his own right.

The 66th anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier came and went last month with the release of a new movie. Hopefully in 66 years Collins’ decision to live his life with no limits will be celebrated in similar fashion.

George Scione can be reached at 594-6520 or gscione@nashuatelegraph.com Also, follow George on Twitter (@Telegraph_BigG).