In a candid article cowritten for Sports Illustrated and circulated a few days ago, the seven-footer Jason Collins became the first active National Basketball Association player to come out as gay. His magazine essay began with three simple declarations: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
Is his decision to publicly embrace his true sexual orientation what the legendary tennis player Martina Navratilova says it is, a true “game changer”? It’s possible. Navratilova, who came out in 1981—that is, when Collins was a mere infant—knows why team sports in general have had an adverse impact on gay athletes, and regards professional basketball as one of the “last bastions of homophobia.”
“In tennis, there are no bosses, no general managers and no coaches who can keep players from competing. So I was safe in that regard,” Navratilova said. “For team sports athletes, this is not the case. A homophobic coach at any level—high school, college or pros—could keep a player from playing.”
But the times, they are a-changing.
The response to Collins in the United States has been largely positive. A first summary of the reactions, prepared by BBC, notes that the player received expressions of support from the NBA as an institution, from Nike as a major advertiser, and especially from fellow players like superstar Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.
But he has also received less than welcome feedback, including from an ESPN on-air analyst, who questioned whether it was possible to be both Christian and a person openly living as a homosexual. The general response to Collins’ announcement, however, has been positive, an encouraging sign of a more tolerant public perhaps best symbolized by the congratulatory phone call he received from US President Barack Obama.
To be sure, the 12-season veteran is not exactly a marginalized figure in US society. He was a roommate of Joe Kennedy’s, a member of the storied American clan who now serves as a US congressman from Massachusetts. He was a classmate of Chelsea Clinton’s, the daughter of the former president. He graduated from Stanford, one of the best universities in the world. Above all, he plays in the NBA, mastering a game that he has in his own lifetime seen grow tremendously in global popularity.
All the same, he belongs to a recognizable group that is vulnerable to harassment, violence, even blackmail: people who live in fear of being found out. He writes: “No one wants to live in fear …. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I’ve endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time.”
Would Collins receive the same kind of welcome in the Philippines? Suppose, to try our hand at a thought experiment, Collins could not agree on the terms of contract with a prospective team, and failed to suit up for the NBA’s next season. Suppose, further, that he decided to try his luck in the reinvigorated Philippine Basketball Association. What would happen then?
It is easy enough to imagine the shouts of “bakla!” that will fall on him from the bleachers, beginning with his first game. In a basketball-crazy country like ours, calling down insults on the opposing team’s players is part of the game. The more personal or insensitive the insult, the merrier. Much of that is, to use street talk, without malice—the literal translation of the common phrase “walang malisya,” meaning no offense meant.
But in truth, treating the perceived or actual sexual orientation of someone as sport, as part of the fun, is offensive and even wounding. If the rambunctious crowds that avidly watch basketball games, whether in the professional league or the barangay liga, are a reflection of our public square, we have some way to go to reach maturity—or, at the least, in tolerance for the gay.
At the Cebu edition of the Inquirer Senate Forum last week, a political science professor asked a candidate whether he supported same-sex marriage, noting that while the issue was unrelated to the forum topic of political dynasties, it touched on the same democratic principle: equality of opportunity. He is right. In Collins’ case as in the future of marriage, that is the true issue.