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The NBA Has An Openly Gay Player: What Changes?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. With just a few words, NBA journeyman Jason Collins made sports history. "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black, and I'm gay." With that announcement in the May 6th edition of Sports Illustrated, Collins became the first man still active in a major team sport to come out.

Most reaction has been positive. Earlier today, President Obama actually returned to the microphones at the end of that news conference to say a few words.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, given the importance of sports in our society, for an individual who's excelled at the highest levels in one of the major sports to go ahead and say, this is who I am, I'm proud of it. I'm still a great competitor. I'm still 7-foot tall and can bang with Shaq and, you know, deliver a hard foul. And, you know, for - I think a lot of young people out there who, you know, are, you know, gay or lesbian who are struggling with these issues; to see a role model like that who's unafraid, I think it's a great thing.

CONAN: So athletes, coaches, we want to hear from you. What changes now in your locker room on your team? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

We've already got one email. This is from Kate: I listen to talk radio almost exclusively, and change it up quite a bit to hear difference perspectives and topics. Today, almost all topics are evolving around the coming out of the gay NBA player. I'm beyond tired of this topic in general, and cannot comprehend the fact that there are people that still judge the value or quality of a person based on their sexual preference.

Well, in The New Yorker, it was Ian Crouch who wrote us - posted a story where he said it was a big deal. In a way, this kind of coming out on the cover of a national magazine seems anachronistic. It was, like many forms of social evolution, somehow unimaginable until it happened and then, a moment later, one wonders how it took this long. But for years, male pro sports seemed to be one of the great holdouts against progress, a place where big-money machismo ruled over the variations of human sexuality. Locker rooms were said to be dangerous places, and silence was the only option. This was a common trope, perhaps even perpetuated out of a kind of ignorance.

Its repetition even started to rub some athletes the wrong way. In 2011, Charles Barkley, a man known for his common sense but never for his tact, said plainly, he was sure that every player has played with gay guys; and went on: It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say oh, no guy can come out as a team sport. These guys would go crazy. First of all, quit telling me what I think. I'd rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can't play.

Let's get a caller in. This is Dylan, and Dylan is on the line with us from Boise.

DYLAN: Hi. How are you doing? I love the show, by the way.

CONAN: Thank you very much.

DYLAN: Yeah. I just wanted to say, I heard your question about how perception might change. And I've had been on a collegiate swim team with gay men, several gay men. It made absolutely no difference. We showered together. We did all the things that normal sports teams do. We bonded outside of the sport, and I just - I was close to these people, but them being gay in no way changed the sport or my opinion of them. And I think if perception of the few change, then that reflects more on the public perception of somebody being gay than Jason Collins. I mean, he is an extremely brave man for doing what he did, and I think he did it in such a big way because he's so much in the public eye, that if he were to do it in any other way, it would have leaked out and fully gotten spread as a huge news story. I mean, I applaud the man.

CONAN: And yes, for younger athletes like yourself, this is no big deal that people are out openly. And a team sports, though, is a little different than swimming.

DYLAN: It is. Team sports are a little different. I played soccer as well. And though I can't actually say that - because this is back in high school, and I don't know if any of my teammates were gay. But even if they had been - and I hope this is a feeling that is coming up in the younger generation - that being gay or straight really doesn't matter to who you are as a person. It's all performance-based. If he's a good player, I want to play with him, and I want to learn from him - gay or straight.

CONAN: As you probably know better than I, though, for example in the European soccer leagues, there's a lot of homophobia. There are homophobic chants that are popular among some of the crowds there.

DYLAN: I don't understand that at all. I have never experienced anything like that in sports, and - you know, I'll grant you, again, that I played not so popular sports as far as major American sports go. But I just - I really see there being no difference in somebody's sexual preference ,when it comes to playing on the field or getting in the pool. I mean, you're there to play a sport. You're there to get better and to learn from the people around you. And there should be no personal interaction in that.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the call.

DYLAN: All right. Thank you very much for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And this is from the New York Daily News and columnist Marcus Hayes [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Hayes is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News], who writes: The impact of Collins' declaration has been overstated. He is nobody. Anonymous. Magic Johnson accelerated the HIV and AIDS conversation because he grew the NBA. The same would not have happened had Terry Teagle contracted the virus. The NBA season is over for Collins and his Washington Wizards. He will face no fallout in any arena in the near future, maybe never.

Collins is a 34-year-old free agent with negligible value. There is a real chance no team signs him up next season. As it stands, Collins' news was less incredible than inevitable. Such is the reality of enlightenment. Had Collins been moved to come out at, say, 24, with a decade of employment ahead, the depth of his bravery would be breathtaking. Even Collins acknowledges this. Even so, it is - instead, he writes, it is only admirable. And in this day, it is unremarkable.

Let's get another caller in. And this is Frank, and Frank's on the line with us from Ridgeland in South Carolina.

FRANK: Yes, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

FRANK: Appreciate your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

FRANK: As far as this affecting the sport, I don't think that it does. But I do they feel they should have their own locker room.

CONAN: They should have their own locker room.

FRANK: Yes, sir.

CONAN: Did you play team sports?

FRANK: I did.

CONAN: And what - which one was that?

FRANK: Football.

CONAN: And why do you think they should have their own locker room?

FRANK: I wouldn't feel comfortable with them in the locker room with me.

CONAN: Don't you think it would kind of disrupt the whole idea of team?

FRANK: Well, if you want to put it that way, then they're disrupting the whole idea of team.

CONAN: So they shouldn't play?

FRANK: No, I didn't say that. I just think that they should have their own locker room.

CONAN: Their own locker room.

FRANK: I wouldn't feel comfortable showering next to them.

CONAN: And do you think it's different in football than in basketball?

FRANK: No, not really.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call, Frank.

FRANK: All right. Thank you, sir.

CONAN: So long. There was Chris Broussard, the NBA analyst on ESPN, on an edition of "Outside the Lines," where he described homosexuality as an open rebellion to God. If you're openly living that type of lifestyle, Broussard said, the Bible says you know them by their fruits. It says that, you know, it's a sin. Broussard said that during a segment, also included gay ESPN columnist Liz - LZ Granderson rather. And if you're living openly in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, adultery, fornication, pre-marital sex between homosexuals, whatever it may be, I believe that's walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. So I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don't think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian.

Let's see if we go next to - this is Courtney, and Courtney is on the line with us from Louisville.


CONAN: Go ahead, please.

COURTNEY: I'm a middle school teacher, and I have a bunch of 14-year-old boys who worship basketball players, especially pro basketball players. And I'm really glad to use this as a teaching opportunity to be like, look, you can be gay and do anything you want. So much of the stereotypes that they see of gay men are, you know, the effeminate stereotype. And so now I can point to this and be like it really doesn't have any effect on what you do with your life.

CONAN: So this is going to be important for you.

COURTNEY: I think so. Absolutely. I mean, they're 14-year-old boys. They worship these guys.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Courtney.

COURTNEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Good luck with the team.


CONAN: Along the same lines, it was Cyd Zeigler writing about Jason Collins as a role model, in USA Today Sports - I grew up in a basketball household on a healthy diet of Celtics-Lakers championship series. My dad was a local hero, able to hit his elbow on the rim at a time when dunking was against the rules. I was supposed to follow in his footsteps, but on the first day of basketball tryouts in junior high school, I had an all-consuming feeling I just didn't belong. There's no doubt in my mind that being gay, just struggling with my sexuality and being teased for it by the other boys, kept me off the basketball court. Like many LGBT youth, I opted for individual sports - track and field and cross-country instead.

Thanks to Collins, the young ones in pee-wee football today won't know a world without an openly gay, male, pro athlete. The teens in youth basketball, just starting to understand their own sexuality, will forever have someone to look up to, someone who looks like them. The young gay men playing college baseball today got a shot in the arm. They now know the sports world is ready for them.

Let's see if we go next to - this is Jay, and Jay is on the line with us from Fayetteville in Arkansas.

JAY: Yes. Thank you for your show. I like this show a lot.

CONAN: Thank you.

JAY: I just wanted to say that if anything, all the major sports should be happy about this because it's opening up a whole new TV demographic for them, and if anything, it's going to raise the ratings because now the gays and bisexuals and lesbians have someone to root for. They have someone to relate to in the sport even more now.

CONAN: And...

JAY: And - yup?

CONAN: Did you play sports?

JAY: Yes, I did. I wrestled and I played football.

CONAN: And - well, we had a caller earlier who's a football player - former football player - said he would be very uncomfortable, that they should have their own locker room.

JAY: I think that's discriminatory. I don't agree with him at all. No, that's wrong because first off, they're playing a sport. They're your teammates. They're not looking to find a boyfriend or a girlfriend. They're out there to play a sport, just like you. They probably already have a boyfriend or girlfriend. So why be so homophobic about it?

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jay.

JAY: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Here's - this is from Jay Brian Louder, posted Monday in - where is it? - Slate.com, who says he heard this as a mixed message. To start, Collins makes the classic maneuver of exempting himself from the dreaded label, gay label - I'm never sure what that means - and then spends most multiple paragraphs telling us how butch and eager to foul he is. At this point, I'm waiting for it, and Collins delivers. I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked that guy is gay. Oh, yes, the good old gay stereotype, you know, sissies and femme swishy types that make the sporty ones look bad.

But lucky for us, Collins makes clear that he will be as tough and masculine and professional as he has always been because he's not going to suddenly become that kind of gay. Sigh. I really want to like Collins, to celebrate the lifting of what I know is a terrible burden for him. But I just can't get with it when his self-reinvention is predicated on the denigration of a whole swath of the community he now hopes to pride march with.

We're talking about the history made yesterday by Jason Collins, who came out as gay. He's the first male professional athlete in a team sport to do so. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Let's get Steven on the line, Steven with us from Austin.

STEVEN: Hi. Yes. I actually was an athlete in high school, and came out at the age of 15. I quickly quit because all of the other players would call me names. At one point, they would say gay people shoot like skeet, all sorts of things. So after that, I quit. I then quit school because my truck was defaced. So just having someone out there who is pro, just makes me feel good because it's a career path that I possibly would've wanted to go down, if I could have.

CONAN: And can you tell us when that was, Steven?

STEVEN: About 2003.

CONAN: So not all that long ago.

STEVEN: No. Not at all that long ago. Lots of change in the last four years.


CONAN: Lots of change in the last four years. Well, that was 10 years ago. Do you think it would be different today?

STEVEN: I don't know. I think kids today - period - are a little bit more carefree about that. However, I do live in Texas, which - as most people know - is a very Christian, homophobic state. So I don't know if like, my high school experience would've been different. But I do hope that no one else has to go through something like that.

CONAN: Let's hope so. Thank you very much for the call, Steven.

STEVEN: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: It was Frank Bruni in The New York Times who wrote about some of the same things. I'm skipping to about halfway through his piece - I know that some conversation in the days to come, perhaps not public discussion but certain private grumbling, will included questions about why Collins has to rock the boat, why the news media is paying such lavish heed to him, and why gays and lesbians in general make such a fuss of things. I know this from my inbox, where some readers routinely tell me they'd be less bothered by homosexuals if we would just please shut up about it. Many of us want to, and will.

And then Bruni lists a lot of conditions after which they think will, including the kind of discrimination we just heard about from Steven in Austin, Texas, on the phone. And he includes this: when an athlete like Collins can be honest about himself without he and his co-author having to stress that he's a guy's guy, a godly man, someone who stayed mum about himself before now precisely so he wouldn't disrupt his teams or upset his teammates, someone who's inhabited locker rooms for 12 seasons, already without incident.

And let's see if we go to Mike, and Mike's on the line with us from Philadelphia. And we just lost Mike. I apologize for that. Let's see if we can go next to - instead, Pete. And Pete's on the line from San Francisco.


CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

PETE: Yeah. I enjoy the show. I'm a gay man in San Francisco, and I was an athlete. I was a good athlete and I find - sort of the whole "out" thing to be a nonissue. We are just who are. We're born that way. We feel that way.

CONAN: I hear what you're saying. But why has it taken so long for a male athlete, professional athlete, to do this?

PETE: Well, for one thing, I don't really see that it was necessary to do that. I mean, being gay is only crucial to someone else that you are in a relationship with, or having a sexual relationship. Otherwise, being gay means nothing to anyone else - none of anyone's business, really.

CONAN: So it's a private matter and should be kept private.

PETE: I mean, it should be as private as it is with straight people. But I really feel that I don't see any bravery in this. I just see it as a way for a guy to - who has a pretty poor career to get himself in the spotlight for a little while. Maybe it'll get him a reality talk show or reality show of some type, or something like that. But I just feel there's too much emphasis put on it. And it is true that a lot of gay people need to chill out a little bit and not make such an issue about things, and maybe the rest of the world will go along with it a little better.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks for the call.

PETE: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks to everybody who called and wrote. We're sorry we didn't have the time to get to all of your comments. Tomorrow, Ken Rudin will be here with the Political Junkie and guest host John Donvan. I'll be back again with you on Thursday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
We incorrectly refer to Marcus Hayes as a columnist for the New York Daily News. Hayes actually writes for the Philadelphia Daily News.