What's Keeping Jason Collins Out of the NBA? Homophobia Phobia.

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Oct. 23 2013 12:22 PM

What's Keeping Jason Collins Out of the NBA? Homophobia Phobia.

Jason Collins
Jason Collins playing for the Atlanta Hawks during the 2010 NBA Playoffs

Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Jason Collins played 12 years in the NBA as a closeted gay man. At the end of last season, he came out. Now he can’t get a job. Why not? According to Ric Bucher’s Tuesday column in Bleacher Report:

Several GMs said the aversion to Collins isn’t over concern about how his sexuality will play in the locker room, but over the relentless media attention it will generate. “If it were just an initial blast and you knew it would settle down after that, it would be one thing,” said one executive. “But you know this is something that he and his teammates are going to be asked about everywhere they go, all season long, and all it takes is one guy to say something a little off and it could really blow up. He’s still good enough to play in the league, but when you throw in the ongoing media frenzy, most teams are going to decide it’s just not worth it.”

In other words, it isn’t prejudice that’s holding back Collins. It’s the distraction he’d create. This would be bad for the team, outweighing what he’d contribute as a bench player. It’s a basketball decision.

We’ve heard this reasoning before. It’s what we hear every time an athlete challenges a social barrier. The team executives who shy away are good people. They believe in fairness and progress. They just don’t want the headache.

That’s what happened 70 years ago to Jackie Robinson. At the time, big-league baseball had no black players. A Boston city councilman, Isadore Muchnick, wanted the Red Sox to give Negro League players a tryout. According to Howard Bryant’s Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, Muchnick ran into resistance from the team’s general manager, Eddie Collins, and its owner, Tom Yawkey.

In Bryant’s account, Yawkey wasn’t a bigot. He was just cautious. He “was a member of the infamous 1946 baseball steering committee that suggested too many blacks attending baseball games would scare away white customers and ruin the national pastime.” Yawkey was a businessman. “He would follow the market instead of move it.”

Muchnick had to threaten the Red Sox financially—refusing to let them play home games on Sundays—before they agreed to give Robinson and two other black players a tryout. Collins wrote an apologetic letter to the president of the American League, explaining that that baseball would probably have to deal with the race “issue.”

The tryout took place at Fenway Park on April 16, 1945. Afterward, Collins told the three players they’d hear from the Red Sox, but the team never contacted them. Joe Cronin, the team’s manager at the time, later recounted that after the tryout, “We told them our only farm club available was in Louisville, Kentucky, and we didn’t think they’d be interested in going there because of the racial feelings at the time.” Not until 1947 did Robinson finally debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Jason Collins isn’t Jackie Robinson. Collins is old for his sport and a lesser talent. His ability to contribute to a team at this point in his career, as my Slate colleague Josh Levin points out, is limited. Many basketball GMs say that’s what will keep Collins out of the NBA. And if that’s all there is to it—if Collins isn’t as good as other players who could fill that 11th or 12th roster spot—fine.

But if there’s more to the equation, that’s another story. If Collins’ on-court value is being weighed against social factors such as “media attention,” teammates being “asked about” him, and the risk that a controversy will “blow up,” then that’s not just a basketball decision. That’s a decision to duck the perils of breaking a cultural barrier. It’s a decision to let other people’s discomfort with a certain kind of athlete dictate whether that athlete gets a job. It’s what happened to Jackie Robinson in 1945. Don’t let it happen to Jason Collins in 2013.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge


The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 5:47 PM Tale of Two Fergusons We knew blacks and whites saw Michael Brown’s killing differently. A new poll shows the gulf that divides them is greater than anyone guessed.
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 5:07 PM One Comedy Group Has the Perfect Idea for Ken Burns’ Next Project
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.