—Mark Anthony Neal
As a lifetime New York Mets fan, I rarely need to be reminded that spring training signaled the beginning of a new baseball season. Yet, for a few years, I could have been reminded by the seemingly annual press conferences from Mets catcher Mike Piazza in which he announced to the world that he was not gay. That Piazza felt compelled to hold a press conference to announce such non-matters, speaks both to the proverbial stakes for male professional athletes (particularly in the so-called four “major” sports), and the absurdity of the national discourse regarding sexual identity.
There was no such press conference for Jason Collins, a twelve-year journey man in the National Basketball Association—just a Sports Illustrated cover story in which he admitted that he was “Black” and “Gay.” Indeed there was a mundane quality to Collins’ admission—it’s not like Collins is the first Black and Gay person to walk the earth. Perhaps, far more remarkable is that Collins has survived the last few seasons as a Black athlete who sits on the end of the bench, in a position that long served as the NBA’s quota program for a league that is still to visibly “Black” for some.
This is not to say that Collins’ “coming out”—a term that really just reproduces the very marginalization that homophobia constructs in the first place—was not brave and that the kudos that he’s received from Team Obama and high-profile colleagues like Kobe Bryant (only a few years removed from his own courtside use of a pejorative directed at Gays) and the always-already surreal Metta World Peace, were not thoughtful. It stands to reason, though, that President Obama will not be making a call to every Black man or women who will admit to a friend, family member, clergy leader or employer that he or she is gay—or more importantly, he won’t be calling those who will be shunned from the comforts of family and community because they did.
But what exactly are we really celebrating in highlighting the decision of one Black and Gay man to tell the world how he has lived everyday for much of his mature life?
As is too often the case in these matters, the attention that Jason Collins is getting is really about the need of our society to pat ourselves on the collective back for being open and tolerant enough to allow a veteran basketball player, close to the end of his career, to tell us that he is Black and Gay. In this regard, I’m not impressed. Nevada State Senator Keith Atkinson recently also admitted that he was “Black” and “Gay” to his legislative colleagues during a debate on Same-Sex marriage, which apparently doesn’t make us feel as good.
To be sure, Jason Collins represents an important moment in professional sport in the United States. As he symbolically raised his hand, hopefully he will find others willing to raise their hands alongside him and encourage a generation of younger athletes to be comfortable enough in their own skins to feel free to express whoever “they be.” Until then I’m just waiting for the press conference or cover story that announces that such things no longer matter.
Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (NYU Press, 2013), and the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black.