WASHINGTON, June 17, 2013 — Jason Collins, a twelve-year National Basketball Association veteran, will be remembered as the first active male professional athlete in a major North American team sport to publicly come out as gay. He did so to significant fanfare in a highly-publicized May 6, 2013 Sports Illustrated cover story. As he put it, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” However, it would be a mistake to identify him, as a former teammate did, with Jackie Robinson who broke professional baseball’s color-barrier in 1947.
Jackie Robinson was a true American hero. He exhibited exceptional bravery and noble qualities from the outset of his career, enduring all manner of racial slurs and epithets as the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. Jason Collins, by all accounts a high-character individual, nevertheless, spent all of his twelve seasons in the NBA concealing his identity. He did wear jersey number “98” in the 2012-13 season, an oblique reference to a notorious antigay hate crime that occurred in 1998. Collins described this as “my one small gesture of solidarity” but acknowledged that it spoke only to a small circle of family and friends with whom he had shared his sexual orientation.
There are other obvious differences between the Collins and Robinson. Jackie Robinson was a world-class athlete, a four-sport star at UCLA (baseball, basketball, football and track), and had a Hall of Fame baseball career. He won the 1940 NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship in the Long Jump, jumping 24 ft 10 1⁄4 and played football for the semi-professional, racially integrated Honolulu Bears. In 1949, he hit .342, stole 37 bases, batted in 124 runs and was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player. He and his Brooklyn Dodger teammates won the World Series in 1955, defeating the New York Yankees in seven games.
Jason Collins is a journeyman center in the NBA, having played for six different teams and sporting career averages of 3.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 0.5 blocks per game. His forte, as he described it in the SI cover story was that “I take charges and foul.” At 7’ and 255 pounds, he banged in the middle with the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and set screens to get shooters open. Still, after twelve years in the league, he played last year for the 10+ year veterans’ minimum annual salary of $1,352,181, significant by normal standards, but well below the NBA average of $5.15 million.
Robinson and Collins had markedly different upbringings. Robinson was born into a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia, during a Spanish flu and smallpox epidemic. His father left the family when Robinson was less than two. At that point, the family pulled up stakes and relocated to Pasadena, California. Robinson and his four older siblings grew up in relative poverty, supported by their mother who worked various odd jobs.
In contrast to Robinson’s hardscrabble upbringing, Collins “had a happy childhood in the suburbs of L.A.” His parents instilled in him and his twin brother “an appreciation of history, art, and … Motown.” On family trips, his parents exposed them to “new things … the Mormon Salt Lake Temple … the House of Martin Luther King, Jr.” According to Collins, they also instilled “Christian values.” He has an aunt who is a superior judge in San Francisco and the twin brothers both attended Stanford.
The environments within which Robinson and Collins emerged as controversial public figures were also markedly different. Jackie Robinson was not allowed to stay with teammates at team hotels, faced lock-outs of field facilities during Florida spring training and faced animosity in the Dodger locker room. When he broke into major league baseball, the U.S. military was still segregated and the Montgomery bus boycott which launched Martin Luther King Jr.’s career as a civil rights leader was seven years away.
Jason Collins, of course, faced none of this because by his own admission he led a “double-life.” He dated women and had an eight-year relationship with a former member of Stanford’s women’s basketball team. To be sure, gays face prejudice, even hatred. However, as one commentator noted, “No one is turning water hoses on them. They are not being attacked by police dogs. There is no Bull Connor or Ku Klux Klan. They are not being lynched en masse, drinking at separate fountains, or being ordered to the back of the bus.”
The “years of misery” Collins endured were largely self-induced. Jackie Robinson did not have the luxury of leading a double-life or hiding who he was. He didn’t have the luxury of ‘coming out’ at the tail end of his career. Collins wrote in SI that he had “reached that enviable state of life in which I can do pretty much what I want.” It’s questionable whether Jackie Robinson ever reached a point in his 10-year career when he could do pretty much what he wanted.
In the end, Robinson reaped substantial rewards. He retired from baseball in 1957 at age 38 to become an executive with Chock Full O’Nuts. In 1965, he worked as an analyst for ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week telecasts, the first black person to do so. As vice president for personnel at Chock Full O’Nuts, he was the first black man to serve as vice president of a major American corporation. He chaired the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) million-dollar Freedom Fund Drive in 1957, and served on the organization’s board until 1967. In 1964, he helped found Freedom National Bank, a black-owned and operated commercial bank based in Harlem. He also served as the bank’s first Chairman of the Board. In 1970, Robinson established the Jackie Robinson Construction Company to build housing for low-income families. It’s fair to say that Robinson accomplished all this the old fashioned way.
Jason Collins also stands to benefit not so much from his career accomplishments as from his admissions. A “gay-marketing strategist” claims that the first openly gay team-sport athlete will earn “millions” in endorsements and speaking engagements. Presidents Obama and Clinton voiced their support and First Lady Michelle Obama told him, “We’ve got your back.” One prominent columnist suggested that the NBA commissioner “use his power to ensure that Jason Collins has a job in the NBA for 82 games next season.” The Boston Red Sox, ironically the last major league team to integrate its roster (in 1959, twelve years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line), saluted Collins for his courage and leadership, saying “Any time you want to throw out a first pitch at Fenway Park, let us know.” Collins and his literary agents have already approached three major publishing houses seeking book deals.
Collins reportedly beat several other professional gay athletes who were in discussions about coming out. He may get his book contract. He may extend his NBA career. He’s already described himself as “much happier” being “genuine and honest.” His revelation may be as some have suggested, “a game changer.” However, he will never be the hero that Jackie Robinson was. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen famously told Republican vice-presidential candidate Senator Dan Quayle, “I knew Jack Kennedy. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The American public knows Jackie Robinson, and Jason Collins is no Jackie Robinson.
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