NBA center Jason Collins drew media attention when he came out on the cover of Sports Illustratedthis week. And while there were a few scattered criticisms, the response - from athletes, managers, and the general public - was mostly positive. So can we expect more active athletes to come out of the closet? Brooke talks to ESPN reporter Kevin Arnovitz about what we can expect to see from major sports teams and the journalists who cover them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone, with sports, most notably the coming out of Washington Wizards center Jason Collins in the pages of Sports Illustrated, the first male player to come out while actively playing on a major league team. Some have worried about professional blowback, but in the coverage so far it seems like a slam dunk, drawing cheers from fellow players:
PLAYER: The conversations that are going on in our locker rooms and, and all over the country, I think it's a beautiful thing and…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coaches:
COACH: I respect his decision but, quite frankly, I’m just focusing on Game 4.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And even a particularly prominent amateur.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: He, he seems like a terrific young man and – yeah, I told him I couldn’t be prouder of him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: ESPN reporter Kevin Arnovitz, who also happens to be gay, says the story is only beginning.
KEVIN ARNOVITZ: The announcement is the easy part. The really hard work is going to be sharing a locker room with guys who may be at various levels of discomfort, teammates getting tired that every time they go into a road city it’s, “Hey look, Jason Collins is in town. Let’s ask all his teammates, ‘What’s it been like having the first openly gay teammate?’”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s certainly generated a lot of tolerant-sounding conversation from sports people but also, it seems, fear on the part of the less tolerant that they won't be tolerated. On ESPN, commentator Chris Broussard said that living openly in unrepentant sin, and that includes living gay, is walking in open rebellion to God in Jesus.
CHRIS BROUSSARD: There are a lot of Christians in the NBA, and they don't want to be – just because they disagree with that lifestyle - they don’t want to be viewed and called bigoted and intolerant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And LZ Granderson, who is an openly gay columnist for ESPN, acknowledged that cries of homophobia may inhibit conversation.
LZ GRANDERSON: I’m not one that wants to stranglehold a respectable conversation because someone disagrees with me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The sports news and gossip blog Deadspin said that ESPN had reduced the story to a piece of sellable controversy lying equidistant between two claims, Chris Broussard arguing the bigots’ perspective, said Deadspin, LZ Granderson arguing the other side. I’m just wondering whether or not you agree with Deadspin that in creating two poles, you create a false equality between a position of tolerance and a position of intolerance?
KEVIN ARNOVITZ: I don’t think that’s what happened, Brooke. I think what happened is this: Chris Broussard is one of our leading NBA insiders, probably has more numbers on his phone, more insight into the minds of players, coaches, etc., than, you know, almost anybody in our organization. He happens to also be a very observant guy, in terms of biblical literalism, or what have you. But he wasn’t brought on there for his positions. He was brought on there because, you know, when you want to find out, you know, what are players thinking about, what coaches are thinking about, you go to those who are well sourced. If one of them happens to have a very particular religious posture, that comes with the package. It's always convenient, but that's what conversation’s about. And I think LZ would agree with that, and essentially did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are there any voices that we haven't yet heard from that you’re waiting for?
KEVIN ARNOVITZ: Yeah. And I don’t know that we’re going to. There are a lot of young basketball players in the league who are not going to be comfortable right off. I think these are also young guys who’ve grown up with Twitter, have seen the effects of social media and know best to keep their mouths shut.
Now, you might have certain people say, well, that's political correctness speaking. No, I think it's an understanding that their discomfort is not necessarily the majority view, and they know better than to generate distractions, generate heat. And most of them don’t want to have to face down a media corps. This is fundamentally a workplace issue. One of the tasks is going to be for the teams to help guys reconcile a religious belief system with the workplace environment that needs to exist for everyone to be able to flourish, including people like Jason Collins.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think it’s interesting how the historic part of this, the first working male major league athlete, etc., has become less prominent in the coverage than Jason's own story and his talent currently as an athlete. I mean, he's on the older side. His stats haven't been particularly good in recent years. Some have even waggishly suggested that, you know, this might contribute to his getting another contract. [LAUGHS]
KEVIN ARNOVITZ: And, by the way, it might contribute to his getting another contract. You know, I – I talked to one executive who said, listen, basketball is about winning ballgames and you want to assemble a roster of people who are gonna help you win ball games. But when you start filling out a roster, you want “character guys,” they’re called, in the league. And I think there are gonna be teams that do want a Jason Collins around.
This has been a parlor game for NBA reporters the last few days. Had someone asked you a week ago to approximate the chances that Jason Collins would be on an opening night NBA roster this upcoming fall, I think a lot of us would have said 50, 60%.
I do think there are enough owners in the NBA that value him not only being nearly seven feet tall and being able to check some of the more imposing centers in the league, but that value that and, frankly, might value the story too. Think about it in terms of the media context. If you're his next team, it's certainly an opportunity for an organization to really kind of fly the flag of progress.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like the Dodgers.
KEVIN ARNOVITZ: And I think history has treated the Dodgers very well. You could be that team.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kevin, thank you very much.
KEVIN ARNOVITZ: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.