I had a moment of white privilege the day Jason Collins announced that he was gay. I was unceremoniously informed of the news by my iPhone, and my reaction was a bit different from what I'd anticipated. Don't get me wrong, I was pleased, joyful actually, but I was also confused. We already knew gay players were on professional teams, if for no other reason than statistical probability, and this just seemed like a confirmation of that assumption rather than a groundbreaking moment in cultural history. Millions of tweets followed the announcement, almost unanimously supportive, overjoyed, or just relieved. Still, I was bothered. The whole event felt -- forgive the term -- flaccid. With no disrespect meant to Collins' career, I was struggling to recall his face. Admittedly, I'm really more of a baseball guy, but Wikipedia reminded me that he played for the Nets awhile ago. He was the bane of the Celtics 2003 playoff run -- I remember always tensing up when he got the ball. At the time, he was fresh-faced and on fire, but after the Nets and Celts stopped going head-to-head every spring, I lost track of Collins' career.
What did I want? I wanted a gay player so huge, so amiably non-threatening, so indefatigably dominant that it didn't even require concern about the sport to like him. On that day, to gay people, I inarticulately stated that I wanted a gay Jackie Robinson. Almost immediately, I was backtracking. It was a sentiment I heard among other straight white dudes, and I'm willing to bet it was about 99 percent limited to our demographic. Please believe me when I say we're trying.
What I really wanted was a liberal's schadenfreude. I wanted to be right before everyone else could even get a chance to understand the situation. I wanted to see the frustration on every bigot's face as they watched, dumbfounded, at a gay athlete dominating the "real" men on the court. But that's just cynical. It's prohibiting the country's ability to evolve in order to confirm my own righteousness in the face of dissent. And it's taking someone else's triumph, trying sneak a piece of the poetic irony that isn't even mine to take part in.
You have to understand, I barely watch sports anymore, but I love the narratives that only sports ever seem to dependably supply. How many non-baseball-fans followed Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's single season home-run race? How many non-football-fans tuned in to see if the Patriots would go 20-0? How many people who couldn't give a crud less about sports watch the World Cup or the Olympics? What we love about sports has so much to do with what we love about stories, they play with our emotions in ways we cannot always be prepared for. It's why we don't watch checkers or tic-tac-toe. But when the already confusing world of sex and politics peatres into the otherwise pristine environment of the game, it is almost inevitable that the story of the game tells about itself will be a metaphor for the country as a whole.
Jackie Robinson's debut is one of those moments when the game and the country were one. He was amazing at the game, a quick runner and hard hitter from his first game to his last out who inspired generations of black children to believe they could compete in a white man's world, that it could be them on the Wheaties box or the silver screen or maybe even giving the state of the union. But there were hardships, black cats thrown at him as he walked to the batter's box, daily threats against his family and body, teammates who wouldn't speak to him and opponents who made every attempt to terminally injure him. And Jackie Robinson did it, he took every injury like a professional ballplayer, met every racial slur with a poker face, and placed every cat safely on the ground before he beat the pants off of his white opponents. Jackie Robinson knew that his behavior and his alone could determine for the league and for the country whether or not blacks and whites would ever be able to assemble together. He had to be unflappable.
I don't want all that for Jason Collins. I think what I wanted for Jason Collins is exactly what happened: Happy, barely surprised support; Short, vaguely excited news coverage; A whole country that moved on to the next thing by week's end. The difference between Jackie Robinson and Jason Collins is that Jason Collins was able to hide his sexuality for 12 years while Jackie Robinson had no choice but to be black from his first game. Even if Collins hit the scene as an out-and-proud player, they still aren't fair comparisons. Jason Collins plays in an America with a black president and ten states that recognize gay marriage. Jackie Robinson didn't just break the color barrier, he broke the only barrier, the one that said there are limitations on who is allowed to play the game and with whom. Jason Collins didn't do that and he knows it, and I'm sure he doesn't want anything like that sort of credit. His is just the most recent action in a steady campaign that started with Billie Jean King, David Kopay, Stacy Sykoras, Wade Davis and other gay and lesbian athletes in and out of America that refused to remain quiet for the past half-century. The more of a big deal that got made about Jason Collins being a gay man in sports, the more I think it would have indicated we had a problem with it. And so if the attitude to the presence of active gay athletes is shrugs then we should count our blessings. If the tempered reaction indicates anything, it's that we're about ready to grow up, on this issue anyway. If Barack Obama is any indication, it should only be about 60 years until our first gay president.