Sunday, February 23, 2014

Jason Collins And When A Story Isn't A Story

Whether he plays or not, Jason Collins will make history when he suits up for the Nets tonight (right as I'm posting this he just checked in). No out gay man has played a major American team sport, and Collins will be the first. That barrier has fallen tonight.
Signing Jason Collins is a vintage Mikhail Prokhorov Nets move. The team, currently in eighth place in the craptastic Eastern Conference, is all sizzle only missing the sizzle. It’s an expensive collection of veterans - per Zach Lowe, the Nets owe more in luxury tax payments than any other team's payroll - led by a first-year coach and team legend, who couldn’t even win a personality battle with former head coach and future actuary Lawrence Frank, banishing him to preparing detailed reports in an assistant capacity. The only redeeming personality Kidd could conjure was in growing a kickass Bond villain beard. The team he has is undeniably skillful, and at one point featured five starters who possessed all pro talent, but that talent has not translated into victories. The owner is a Russian billionaire who, as of three years ago, did not know where his 200-foot mega-yacht was, and whose outer trappings really are that of a Bond villain. He does not attend the games (perhaps he misplaced his arena). The franchise, meanwhile, is nothing but a cynical branding exercise, which makes sense in a cynical branding exercise called Brooklyn. The aesthetic, in ever-chic black and white, is the literal embodiment of wealth yearning for meaning.

The Nets aren't the best thing money could buy, but certainly an example of money put to use. They just forgot one thing: the team is mind-numbingly dull to watch.
Jason Collins will fit right in.

For one, his play could charitably be described as plodding. Out or not, Collins was never going to get a contract this season for his athleticism. He’s a veteran who understands team defense, can body up big guys like Dwight Howard, and has a reputation as a great teammate. His addition doesn’t move the needle in any significant way, though it somehow barely raises the average age of the team. On a personal level his integration to the team will be a non-story. Paul Pierce has long been one of his advocates (and tweeted a message in support the day Collins came out) and Kevin Garnett can’t hear anything with those baller headphones on.

Of course, Collins' significance isn’t for his play, which is the central contradiction of this entire story. It’s significant in a historical sense but equally insignificant in that Collins has played in 713 games across twelve seasons. That this one game his teammates may be uncomfortable showering with him is an obviously absurd statement. His act of bravery, and it’s a rare moment in sports where I’m comfortable using that kind of vocabulary, happened months ago and is equally rife for paradox. It was both incredibly brave and simply an assertion of his humanity, nothing more and nothing less. In that light, tonight is just a game, and one thinks Collins would like it to be treated just that way.

If Jason Collins is a distraction, well this team is designed to be a distraction much more than it’s designed to win and he will fit right in. Once the Olympics started up we were all happy to stop talking about social problems in Russia (Ukraine’s implosion may have helped). No one brings up that Kobe (allegedly) raped someone either, anymore. I think we can decide to collectively move on about Collins’ consensual sexual preferences, too.

The irony here is that the people to whom it’s the biggest deal are trying to minimize the importance of Collins’ (and Michael Sam’s) actions. In a bit of mental jiu jitsu, this line of reasoning folds intolerance of homosexuality into a worldview that claims we shouldn’t care about a player’s personal life, gay or straight. It takes only a cursory knowledge of the interlocking nature of sports and tabloid news - Babe Ruth, Joe Dimaggio, Brett Favre, Manti Te’o, etc - to disprove this point. Those Internet comment warriors also right but for the wrong reasons. A collective “who cares” should be the response to this news.

Someday, it will. Tonight it matters, and for a brief time will be a cool story. Sports can be at the vanguard of progress, as they were to some extent with Jackie Robinson and integration, or a reflection of progress, as I would argue they are tonight. They can also be meaningless games we pay genetic freaks to play for our pleasure.

In that context, Jason Collins is perfect for this moment. His play can be the story, and as anyone who's watched him play can tell you, there's not a whole lot of story there. One hopes that eventually, a player's sexual orientation won't have to be a story at all.

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