Jason Collins: NBA Player Shows How to Tolerate Being Tolerated

NBA center Jason Collins made headlines yesterday as he became the first active player on a major American sports team to be openly gay. In a truly superb piece published by Sports Illustrated, Collins describes his process of coming out — why it took so long and the challenges he faced as a celebrity and an athlete. 

“Imagine you’re in the oven, baking. Some of us know and accept our sexuality right away and some need more time to cook. I should know — I baked for 33 years.”

Though not the first professional athlete to come out (NBA forward and center John Amaechi described his orientation in his memoirs, Man in the Middle), he is the first active player to do so. To nobody’s surprise, it hasn’t been without controversy. 

ESPN’s Chris Broussard, most notably, got into an on-air debate with gay CNN correspondent LZ Granderson. “If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be,” Broussard said, “not just homosexuality — adultery, fornication, pre-marital sex between heterosexuals, whatever it may be. I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God, and to Jesus Christ.” 

He then added, “I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don’t think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian.”

If the Bible Tells Me So

Among the most important tenants of Christianity are Love thy neighbor, and Judge not lest ye be judged. But for the Broussards of the world, a little context might be helpful.

As a gay person, and the product of 20 years of Catholic education — from preschool through Georgetown University — I’ve frequently encountered the relationship between homosexuality and religion. It is directly addressed three times in the Bible: once in story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (from which we derive the term “sodomy” to refer to sex between men), again in Leviticus, and again in the first letter of Saint Paul to the Romans.

Sodom and Gomorrah was a hostile city full of many vices — references to homosexual behavior refer contextually to rape and abuse, rather than committed relationships. Saint Paul warned against homosexuality in his letter, but also advised against any relationships at all given that the second coming of Christ was thought to be imminent, and celibacy was preferable to matrimony.

Leviticus is pretty clear: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death.”

But Leviticus also prohibits the consumption of shellfish or meat from non-cloven beasts. It is an enthusiastic supporter of the death penalty (see above), and mandates purification for women who menstruate or boys who have wet dreams. Of the 613 rabbinical laws in the Old Testament, 247 come from Leviticus.

And nearly all have been discarded…except for that one.

(Marriage in the Old Testament refers to one man and multiple women, harems, and concubines. It was a man’s world, where women were property and many children were crucial for the survival of clan and family. Old Testament marriage is illegal in most U.S. states.)

In many contemporary Christian denominations, homosexuality is not a sin in and of itself. But sexual behavior out of wedlock is, and as LZ Granderson points out in the interview, church-sanctioned gay marriages aren’t exactly easy to come by.

It’s a hate the sin, love the sinner sort of mentality that at the same time makes kids growing up feel terrible, while keeping a Church’s hands clean of direct discrimination or bigotry. It’s a kind of doctrinal Catch-22, and as Granderson points out, seeks to place a cross of celibacy upon the shoulders of gay individuals.

Out of the Closet, Into the Locker Room

Open homosexuality in sports has been particularly divisive for obvious reasons, such as frequent physical contact, butt-slapping, hugging, and team showering. Contact is more intimate in sporting scenarios than is usually acceptable, and tends to be compensated for by a hyper-display of masculinity. 

Collins makes a jab at that concern himself, near the end of his article: “Believe me, I’ve taken plenty of showers over 12 seasons. My behavior wasn’t an issue before, and it won’t be an issue now.”

There isn’t too much information available on the effect of out athletes on team dynamic, though Collins makes an apt comparison to a comprehensive survey conducted across multiple branches of the military following the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), which was held up for years for similar concerns: “Cohesion did not decline after the new policy of open service was put into place. In fact, greater openness and honesty resulting from repeal seem to have promoted increasing understanding, respect, and acceptance.”

What about the Chris Broussards?

If there’s one thing Collins saw coming, it was a reaction like this. In his piece he addresses concerns about friends, family, and teammates. “I’ve been booed before,” he writes. “There have been times when I’ve wanted to boo myself. But a lot of ill feelings can be cured by winning.”

But there will always be the Chris Broussards, who may not yet have “evolved” as so much of this country has.

Speaking to his resilient friendship with Granderson, Broussard writes: “LZ and I know where each other stand and we respect each other’s right to believe as he does. I know he’s gay, and he knows I believe that’s a sin. I know he thinks I get my moral standards from an outdated, mistranslated book, and he knows I believe he needs to change his lifestyle. Still we can laugh together, and play ball together.”

Not great…but perhaps not terrible. We live in a country that values the freedoms of speech and press, where everyone is entitled to an opinion, no matter how dated or musty it may seem. But there is a big difference between tolerance and acceptance, and we ought not to settle for the former. We must accept Broussard’s right to consider homosexual behavior a sin, but we should never tolerate merely being tolerated. We can do better.

We should remember that coming out is a process for everyone, not just those who are gay or lesbian. Coming out as an ally takes time too, especially in certain parts of the country, and perhaps in locker rooms. But it’s important to be patient, even when it’s hard, and even when it feels like one is settling for mere tolerance . So long as there’s dialogue and a few people like Collins who are willing to pave the way, there will be progress.

“If I’m up against an intolerant player,” he writes simply, “I’ll set a pretty hard pick on him. And then move on.”