Upon hearing that Jason Collins, the journeyman National Basketball Association center, just became the first active male major-league athlete to announce publicly that he is gay, the mind involuntarily compares him to a previous sports trailblazer. When he donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform in 1947 (as chronicled in 42, the feature film that has grossed more than $55 million in its first three weeks), Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play Major League Baseball or any other professional sport. The similarities are obvious, as are some differences: Robinson did not really come out, as blackness cannot be hidden the way gayness can. But other differences are more subtle, and more telling.
What Robinson did was such a tremendous deal—so tremendous that, uniquely, his number is now retired by every MLB team (with one valid exception)—because he was a trailblazer not just in sports but in society. In 1947, Robinson's first season, Jim Crow was de rigueur in the South and public schools were segregated across the country, with Brown v. Board seven years into the then-unknowable future. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once told black pitcher Don Newcombe (who debuted for the Dodgers a season after Robinson), in a quote we would need to invent if he hadn't said it: "You and Jackie will never know how easy you made my job, through what you went through on the baseball field."
In 1947, sports was at the cutting-edge of lessening racial inequality. But in 2013, it is about the most backward arena one can find in mainstream American life when it comes to tolerance of gays. If we didn't know better about sports—didn't have the context that nobody has ever done what Collins has just done1—then Collins's act would seem almost retro. The poignant detail, offered in his magnificent Sports Illustrated essay, that with his two most recent teams he wore #98 in honor of the murdered gay man Matthew Shepard reeks of an era when gay people were forced into the closet, telegraphing their true selves to others through obscure code. It is almost medieval; it reminds me of the crypto-Jews of Inquisition-era Spain. It is sickening to think this was the pervading reality for America's gay community until extremely recently, of course. But, outside of sports, the world we live in, though far from perfect when it comes to accepting gays (not to mention extending them full legal rights), is in large part better.
You can see the difference between what Collins and Robinson did, also, in the types of players the two were. Robinson was relatively young (28), beginning his career, and a burgeoning superstar (he went on to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors during his career). Collins is older (34), at the tail-end of his career (a 12-year veteran), and a very solid, dependable big man whom nobody would identify as a star. In fact, there is an important caveat to make. It is not technically accurate to call Jason Collins the first active male major-league athlete to come out: The season is over, and he is currently a free agent; if he goes unsigned, then he would join the small group of folks like John Amaechi who came out after their careers had concluded. It's a little different than that, because he seems open to playing again. But it leaves the door open for many more milestones.
Indeed, unlike with Robinson, there will be more, bigger milestones than Collins: the first gay college basketball player; the first gay National Football League and Major League Baseball players; the first gay professional player who is also a star (yes, that too is coming). It will be tempting for many, in the coming days, to pat Jason Collins on the back, praise him, and then start waiting for the subsequent, bigger thing to happen.
Yet I can't help feeling that Collins is equally as brave as Robinson was. It is true that Robinson accepted more risks, including to his physical security. The stakes were higher for Robinson. But so were the rewards. Robinson was offered the chance to be a superhero, and he took it, and he is now, indeed, a superhero. More than that, he is one of the most important American figures of the 20th century—not only in sports, but in everything. By contrast, what incentive did Collins have? It was already unclear whether he was going to get another payday, and his coming out could plausibly make his signing by an NBA team less likely. (Horrible, but true.) While I would imagine Collins's move will make waves in the black community (it is interesting that Collins identifies himself in his opening sentence as a "black man" before identifying himself as "gay"), they will not be anything like the waves made by a black president announcing his support for same-sex marriage, and they are likely not to ripple into society beyond that community. Really, all that was on the table for Collins was making a meaningful, significant, but not world-shattering stride in trying to get the world of sports off of its retrograde, vestigial ass so that it can maybe catch up with the rest of the culture.
The 30 NBA teams are not going to retire Collins's number; in fact, none of them will. He has earned his place in basketball history, but it remains to be seen just how huge a place it will prove, and his new historical status is guaranteed to minimize a very admirable playing career on the court (as even Robinson's beginnings overshadowed his Hall of Fame on-field contributions). Collins's is not the Robinson-esque heroism available only to the incredible people among us. His is the everyday-type heroism that we all can learn from. And his aims are proportionately modest. "I'm glad I'm coming out in 2013 rather than 2003," he writes. "The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted. And yet we still have so much farther to go. Everyone is terrified of the unknown, but most of us don't want to return to a time when minorities were openly discriminated against." No, most of us don't, and one feels that most of us can, like Collins, actually make a difference toward ensuring that doesn't happen.