In Jackie Robinson’s first Major League Baseball game, the second baseman played first base. The future Hall of Famer went oh for three: groundout, fly ball, grounder into a double play, and then a sacrifice bunt that, thanks to an error, found Robinson safe at second and the lead baserunner a-hugging third.
Jason Collins, who came out last spring, will Sunday night become the first openly gay player on the roster of a team in one of the Big Four sports leagues. Earlier Sunday, he signed a standard short-term 10-day contract. He, too, will suit up for a team from Brooklyn—the Nets, of the National Basketball Association—although his debut will come not at the Barclays Center, a quick bike ride around Prospect Park from the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field, but at the Staples Center against the Los Angeles Lakers. The point isn’t that Jason Collins’ play doesn’t matter (on the court, nobody will demand that he do more than give the Nets several halfway competent minutes as a big man, and that has nothing to do with his being gay). The point is that even revolutionary, galloping change happens in increments.
Play the tape back. Michael Sam coming out before the NFL Draft. Brittney Griner hitting the cover of ESPN The Magazine, and women’s basketball generally getting over out lesbians with the ease of swishing a free throw. Collins coming out. Now leave the world of sports. Legal tolerance for LGBTQ citizens is obviously nowhere near what it should be or where it will be, but it does feel like awhile ago since Massachusetts started certifying same-sex marriages, right? Actually, we have not reached the decade mark on that one. Yet a half-century from now, the leap in legal and social tolerance will be painted, and not inaccurately, as lightning-quick. And it has been. But that does not make the moments any less special.
The Nets organization—including coach Jason Kidd, a former teammate of Collins’; general manager Billy King, who insisted this is a “basketball decision”; and, yes, owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the gazillionaire Russian oligarch—deserves a ton of credit here. “It’s been a rough couple of seasons for the Nets, and despite their recent surge in the Eastern Conference standings, they haven’t done much right since Barclays Center opened,” ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz observes. “But today, they're the league leaders. In the NBA market most vulnerable to media distractions, they dismissed the media distraction canard. Instead, they’re embracing the idea that change doesn't come without disruption, and that tests of character are worth confronting.”
But while Dodgers GM Branch Rickey and owner Walter O’Malley similarly deserved credit back in 1947, that day belonged to Robinson—even though it took him til the end of the season to win Rookie of the Year and 1949 to win Most Valuable Player and 1975 for Frank Robinson to become the first black manager; and even though the real civil rights revolution did not come until the 1960s; and even though we still have plenty left to do in 2014. Indeed that day also belonged to the pantheon of subsequent black trailblazers and icons, as well as to the pre-existing ones. Larry Doby is best known for integrating baseball’s American League a couple months after Robinson came along, but he also integrated the American Basketball League all the way back in 1943.
In the moment, we can lose sight of the length of the struggle. At this moment, it is worth taking stock of all the people who came before Collins, and the many more who will come after him.
And, sure, we can enjoy the moment itself as well. Sunday night, we are all Nets fans—and not just because they’re playing the Lakers.