A glass half-empty take on the Jason Collins saga

There is absolutely no doubting that Jason Collins’ “coming-out” is an act of considerable courage considering how strongly homosexuality remains frowned upon in certain circles, especially in the United States. While I certainly can appreciate this, I cannot help but long for the day when such considerations won’t be considerations at all, and when we shall judge homosexuals the same way we would everybody else: by what they do, not by what they are.

Collins is the first NBA player to admit being gay. It took long enough – it seems logical that there must have been other gay NBA players who didn’t dare do the same. That’s tragic in itself; you’d hope that one day, the notion of coming out will be replaced by the notion of just being out. You’d hope that being gay would not require the kind of announcement cancer patients have to make to their families. But more significant than the moronic rambles of a few bible-thumping homophobes is the widespread stigma that would have stayed with a professional athlete (or anyone) for the duration of his career and beyond, a stigma which could have been camouflaged under the cloak of “meritocracy.”

In that respect, Collins’ coming-out represents a breaking down of barriers, and that alone is cause for joy. (Mind you, it’s likely not a coincidence that he happens to be a 34-year-old journeyman player near the end of his career. If LeBron James was gay, do you think he’d dare come out of the closet now?)  There are those who have tried to mask their prejudice behind the suggestion that this isn’t a big deal. Oh, it’s a big deal, alright. My suggestion is not that it isn’t a big deal, my suggestion is that it shouldn’t be. But there seems to be an elephant in the room, and now seems like the perfect time to get rid of it. I know the elephant is there when I read what just might be the dumbest tweet of the year. Here is said tweet:

Tim Tebow: “I’m a Christian.”

Media: “Keep it to yourself.”

Jason Collins: “I’m gay.”

Media: “You’re a hero.”

The factually incorrect content of the tweet itself is not even worth answering. It would be much like debating a flat-earther. There is no use or merit to debunking this stupidity. However, you can point to the underlying suggestion of the tweet to explain why a story like Jason Collins’ remains a big deal. I cannot pull punches here; I cannot be nice. There are people out there who take it upon themselves to speak for religious institutions that, if they had their way, would keep homosexuals humiliated and ostracized. Christian religions get no help from this specific idiotic tweet, because it combines their dogmatic homophobia with an acute awareness of their diminishing importance. Basically, it’s just sad. However, I don’t want to point to a specific institution, because no single religion has a monopoly on attempting to institutionalize homophobia. It was Christianity in this case, but it could very well have been another one.

I must say I do care for not attacking the Christians, Jews and Muslims I know and care about, believers who can tell apart the positive moral messages of their religions from their inevitable paranoid and hateful lunacy. There are believers out there who have offered support to Jason Collins.  Those people are intelligent and rational enough to realize that a person’s sexual orientation doesn’t define him/her to nearly the extent that the stigma homosexuals still have to live with today would have you believe. (I don’t know about you, but when I think of myself, the first thing that comes to mind is not that I’m heterosexual, though I am.) So it’s important to me to separate the reasonable believers from the loonier ones, who not only will accept the superstitious stupidity of Leviticus 18:22 and Deuteronomy, but quote it at every turn as a justification for labeling an entire section of society as unnatural or immoral, and treating those people as second-class citizens. Which brings me to Chris Broussard. Broussard is a basketball analyst for ESPN. When asked for his thoughts, his response went like this:

“Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly, like premarital sex between heterosexuals. If you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits. It says that, you know, that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, adultery, fornication .. .whatever it maybe, 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.”

I’m very sorry to have to say this, but my initial reaction upon hearing Broussard’s take is best summed up in this speech:

OK, on a serious note, lots to quarrel with here. First, even I, the nasty anti-theist, know the bulk of the gay bashing happens in the Old Testament. Jesus himself had nothing to say about homosexuals. Actually, my verse-reciting skills are a bit off, but I seem to remember Jesus urging his disciples to love one another as he loved them. Secondly, last I checked Christianity is a system of values to which you must adhere to call yourself a Christian. So, if Jason Collins adheres to those, though why he’d want to goes beyond the limits of my imagination (then again, it very much is a religion of self-loathing), he would qualify as a Christian, in all logic.

Thirdly, and I saved the most important for last, Christianity is not just a personal moral model, it’s a social one as well. So given that I take Broussard on his word that he adheres to this model, guess what, Chris: your cowardly disclaimer about the fact that you have no problem with Collins playing in the NBA means jack shit! The second you bring Christian values into this, you are instantly stating you believe homosexuality to be a disorder that need be condemned. No amount of sugar-coating on your part will change the core of your message.

See, the Jason Collins story is a big deal because of every Chris Broussard out there who still literally believes that Jason Collins is an abomination, and there are lots of them. It’s a big deal because the likes of Chris Broussard vocally condemn the likes of Jason Collins for their nature, still today. As long as the likes of Jason Collins refrain from identifying themselves as gay out of fear of the consequences the likes of Chris Broussard might inflict upon them, stories like this will always be a big deal.

Two more points are worth making about Broussard. First, he is far too unimportant to be made into a martyr. Secondly, he didn’t give himself the tribune to express his imbecilic opinion. He just used it when it was granted to him.

Which bring me to ESPN. I was hoping they wouldn’t sack Broussard, which they didn’t, but I must admit I was somewhat surprised that, in their so-called apology, the network didn’t even acknowledge that what Broussard said was wrong. Had they apologized for Broussard while warning him privately that this type of discourse is unacceptable, I would have been fine with it. You prefer an occasional slip-up like this to censoring the guy? I get it. But this is not how the network views this incident, it appears. ESPN described it as “the expression of personal opinions.” Really, huh? Personal opinion? Let us rewind and look at how ESPN handled another dicey situation.

A few months ago, ESPN fired Rob Parker for comments questioning Washington Redskins’ quarterback Robert Griffin’s “blackness.” In those comments, Parker made references to the fact that Griffin has a white girlfriend and reportedly is a Republican, which he followed up by asking whether Griffin is a “brother or a cornball brother.” There is positively no denying that Parker’s comment was moronic and indefensible and could be construed as downright racist.  So ESPN decides that since Parker’s contract was expiring, this would be a good reason not to renew it. This is perfectly justifiable, as we can imagine that ESPN would not want someone holding a racist discourse on its airwaves.

But let me get this straight. Racism? Bad, so bad that we’re going to fire you for it. Homophobia? The expression of personal opinions. Well, so much for avoiding double standards. Are we to understand that in the eyes of ESPN, homophobia isn’t as bad as racism? Now, I want to be perfectly clear. IN NO WAY am I suggesting ESPN overreacted to Parker’s racism. I am saying Chris Broussard’s homophobia is just as bad and ESPN should have taken it just as seriously, seeing as how both are brands of undiscriminating hatred and their expression, a form of hate speech. Unfortunately, there are only two possible conclusions one can draw from this, and neither is encouraging. Either ESPN (1) think the public outrage over imposing a sanction (firing or something else) on a “good christian” would be worse than the bashing they took for the firing of Parker or (2) they really do think homophobia isn’t as big a deal as racism. I will not go into the details of either prospect, but whichever one is the reason for ESPN’s complacency with Broussard, one truth needs to be confronted.

All the journalists I’ve read who have commented on the issue have been like a troop of ballerinas tiptoeing around the role of religion in the Jason Collins story. Well, in contrast with the ballerinas, allow me to be the bull inside the China shop. It appears that, once again, religion makes for the perfect excuse to inject a little relativism in a debate which would otherwise have no place for it. If not for the superstitious nonsense, how does ESPN allow Broussard to say that Collins is an unnatural, immoral, second-class human being?

However, as we’ve seen with the reactions to Collins’ coming-out, we too easily allow plain prejudice to go unquestioned as long as it falls within the scope of religious dogma. Am I the only one who has a problem with this? You can get shitcanned from TV for saying something racist, or antisemitic, or xenophobic or even just politically incorrect (ask Bill Maher). But cite religion as a justification for homophobia and you’re bulletproof, at least on ESPN. Once again, I want to be clear. It’s not that I want Chris Broussard silenced. I’d rather see him discredited, and to my delight, many have taken to doing exactly that. This notwithstanding, what I really want is for ESPN to set the records straight with us. Why do they deem what Rob Parker said to be so much worse than Broussard’s faith-based homophobic statement about Jason Collins? Racism and homophobia strike me as equally reprehensible. So does ESPN just think differently, or are there other interests at play here? We’ll probably never know.

Charles P. Pierce of Grantland is perfectly right when he says we shouldn’t pin on Jason Collins our hopes for a better world.  A single individual could not possibly hope to change a tradition of demonizing homosexuals that goes back several centuries, nor could he hope to change the bullshit machismo culture still so prevalent in sports (a subject I haven’t touched on, but which is significant nonetheless). But I suppose that if his coming-out helps bring the homophobic ramblings of scripture into the slightest disrepute and lessen the faith-based stigma associated with homosexuality, we are one step closer to stories like Collins’ truly not being a big deal, which should be the ultimate goal. But when that happens, it won’t be because we don’t want to annoy heteros who are uncomfortable with homosexuality. It will be because the stigma, and the intolerance that feeds it, will be gone. And then, maybe the Collins story will turn out not to be a glass half-empty one after all.

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