MITCH ALBOM examines the similarities and differences between brave, inspiring athletes
Ever since NBA player Jason Collins announced he was gay, some people have been hailing him as a new Jackie Robinson.
Yes, he is brave. And yes, he is inspiring; gay basketball players who thought the NBA would never accept them now might be inspired to go forward with their dreams.
But let’s be fair. Jackie Robinson in the 1940s was quite a different story than Jason Collins in 2013. For starters, Collins played 12 seasons in the NBA without anyone knowing he was gay. Jackie Robinson couldn’t play one minute of baseball without people knowing he was black.
This is the first major difference. Skin color is not a secret. Robinson was undeniably the first African American in the modern major leagues. Collins was not the first gay player in the NBA, just the first to admit it while still active. John Amaechi, who played five years in the league, came out as gay in 2007, four years after his retirement; he recently told CBS Sports Radio there are other gay NBA players right now. So Collins was not alone.
Robinson was. He knew it. Everyone knew it.
It’s why some people wanted to kill him.
Different times, different issues
“First there was the No.42. Now there is the No.98. Two historic numbers from the world of professional sports that were forever united now on the civil rights front.”
An MSNBC host, Thomas Roberts, who is openly gay, said that of Collins this past week. With due respect, it’s over the top. We are too comparison-oriented in this country. Today’s someone does not have to be the new yesterday’s someone. Gays in the 2010s have a serious battle, for sure, one distinctly different than blacks did in the 1950s, Japanese did in the 1940s or, while we’re at it, American Indians did in the 1700s and 1800s. Collins is fighting his bravely and for that we should salute him. Don’t insult him by aligning his status until it turns people off.
Again, just study the facts. Jackie Robinson played at a time when certain states legally denigrated blacks to subhuman standards. Separate bathrooms. Separate hotels. Laws that made it nearly impossible for many blacks to vote.
Collins may live in a country still debating its gay citizens’ rights to marriage, but he is hardly forbidden to drink from a “straight” water fountain. He never had to use a separate entrance. He is not barred from dancing with certain others, attending certain colleges, eating in certain restaurants or riding certain buses. And despite the prejudices he faces, there is no history of gays being slaves in this country.
A question of star power
In his first-person Sports Illustrated essay, Collins spoke about “the strain of hiding my sexuality” and said he was finally “raising my hand.” His biggest battle, by his own account, was to publicly admit who he was, where he was, at the end of his career. Jackie Robinson’s battle was to deal with who he was from his first at-bat. And he became a Hall of Famer anyhow.
Which, let’s also admit, is an important distinction. In the level world of principle, it doesn’t matter how good you are. But in sports, it does. That’s just a fact. And the bigger the athlete, the bigger the issue. Jose Canseco and Shane Monahan were baseball players who used steroids. Which one do you remember?
All the attention Collins has drawn – including a phone call from President Barack Obama – may seem like huge overkill if Collins doesn’t play again. And there’s no guarantee he will. He’s a 34-year-old free-agent center who averaged 1.1 points a game in his most recent stint.
If he doesn’t sign somewhere, is he much different than Dave Kopay, Roy Simmons, Glenn Burke or Billy Bean, former pro football and baseball players who came out as gay after their playing days? Yet the fuss over them was nowhere near what we saw with Collins.
And that is my only point: the magnitude some insist on attaching to stories. Increasingly in our country, we need a reminder that not everything is the biggest thing ever. Not every headline is bold-faced, large type. And not every Jason Collins is Jackie Robinson. That’s not a knock on Collins; it’s a compliment.
Jackie has his own story.
Jason deserves his own, too.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go towww.freep.com/mitch.