A little tweeting goes a long way. A long, long way.
When Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers showed his support for the now openly gay Jason Collins of the Washington Wizards, the NBA changed. Just as it did when the news of Collins coming out hit, the league wasn't the same.
In a swift 140-character tweet, the Black Mamba helped change everything.
Kobe Bryant @kobebryant
Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don't suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others #courage #support #mambaarmystandup #BYOU2013-4-29 16:01:42
Kobe isn't just a superstar, he's a global figurehead. That tweet was sent out to nearly 2.5 million followers, it was retweeted nearly 35,000 times and favorited by more than 10,000 people.
Bill Clinton, a former President of the United States, has less than a quarter of the followers Kobe does (though he only recently joined Twitter). When he tweeted out his support of Collins, he didn't even garner a fifth of the retweets or favorites that the Mamba did. That's how much influence Bryant has, whether he likes it or not.
Bryant has never been the most amicable of persons. His Twitter debut was a shock in itself. He considered himself to be antisocial.
We can liken Kobe to a less burly version of Charles Barkley who despised being idolized.
"I am not a role model," Barkley explained in a 1993 Nike commercial. "I'm not paid to be a role model. I'm paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court."
He really believed that. But he was wrong. He was a role model. All professional athletes worth watching are. They're glorified and venerated by millions. Kobe included.
Bryant is a symbol, someone people worship and put on a pedestal. He can instill a sense of belief, both good and bad. And he knows this. This isn't his first brush with the issue. Not even close.
It was a little bit more than two years ago when he was fined $100,000 by the league for muttering a gay slur on national television after receiving a technical foul against the San Antonio Spurs.
At the time, Kobe chalked his verbal slippage up to the emotions invested within the game.
"My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period," Bryant said at the time (via ESPNLosAngeles.com). "The words expressed do NOT reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities and were NOT meant to offend anyone."
Evidenced by the six-figure fine that commissioner David Stern imposed on Kobe, the league was not prepared to tolerate any aspersions that could be construed as sinister, regardless of the actual intent.
"While I'm fully aware that basketball is an emotional game, such a distasteful term should never be tolerated," Stern said in 2011. "Accordingly, I have fined Kobe $100,000. Kobe and everyone associated with the NBA know that insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game or society."
He was right. And Kobe understood.
"The comment that I made, even though it wasn't meant in the way it was perceived to be, is nonetheless wrong, so it's important to own that," Bryant had said.
But did he mean it? Or was he just sorry he got caught and subsequently penalized?
Lodging inquiries into the sincerity behind a professional athlete's attrition has become accepted discourse. In a world where the truth is constantly manipulated and we as fans (and media members) are consistently lied to, there's no reason for us to take anything at face value.
From the wide-spread use of steroids, to petty and egregious crimes committed by supposed role models, to anonymous sources, we're duped on a daily basis. And so, it has become a common practice to remain skeptical of everything and anything we hear and attempt to digest.
Bryant's apology was no exception. He could not be so readily exonerated by everyone. How could he? Caught in the moment or not, his turn of phrase was especially reckless for a global icon like himself.
That those syllables were so readily on the tip of his tongue was concerning. Society has become much too much to cavalier in its interpretation of tolerance. And that's not pure conjecture. That's a fact.
How many times have you sat a bar, at a ball game or just been a part of a conversation where homophobic or racial or any other discriminatory comments creep their way into the discussion? Too many. And these instances aren't always malicious in their intent. It's just talk. People caught up in the moment.
Just like Kobe was.
But that doesn't make it alright. It didn't make it alright. Something had to be done.
Bryant's actions prompted a response from both the Lakers and the league. Los Angeles filmed a public service announcement that preached understanding, compassion and acceptance. It was a message that was meant to put callowness on trial, just as much as it was meant to rehabilitate Kobe's fractured image.
The NBA also backed a Grant Hill-led commercial that asserted using gay as a replacement for the terms "dumb" or "stupid" or anything like that was "not cool." Not as a form of trash talk and most certainly not as the result of boiled over emotions.
Less than one month later, ignorance struck again.
Joakim Noah was fined $50,000 for making a an equally derogatory comment against the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. He too expressed regret over what he had done.
"I think it's fair," Noah said of the fine in 2011 (via ESPNChicago.com). "I made a mistake, learn from it and move on. That's about it."
Could Noah really learn from it, though? Would the rest of the NBA? So much had been put into preventing these incidents from manufacturing already, and here Noah was, making the same "mistake" Kobe did.
Fast forward nearly two years later and we seem to be bearing witness to a different league (a different world?). Bryant led a brief social-media crusade against a Twitter follower who filled his timeline with anti-gay sentiments.
Kobe Bryant @kobebryant
Just letting you know@PacSmoove @pookeo9 that using "your gay" as a way to put someone down ain't ok! #notcool delete that out ur vocab2013-2-11 00:44:23
He was then chided by another follower, who referenced the infraction we just discussed and Bryant, once again, owned up to it while also reiterating where he stood now.
Kobe Bryant @kobebryant
@onepercentofone @pookeo9 exactly! That wasn't cool and was ignorant on my part. I own it and learn from it and expect the same from others2013-2-11 01:12:47
These acts of intelligence and reception gave us hope. They were emblems of progression. Signs of constructive change. But where they genuine? Again, we're prone to cynicism. We have to be. Words aren't enough. They're never enough.
Kobe could apologize all he wanted, and lead internet campaigns on a weekly basis, and it still wouldn't matter. Faried's words, though insightful, meant little. Noah's remorse from 2011 meant nothing. Talk today isn't cheap, it's worthless. Until the NBA, and these very players that were endorsing leniency, were actually subject to the issue at hand, everything we knew meant nothing.
And then suddenly, it meant everything.
Collins, an active NBA player, admitted that he was gay.
"I'm a 34-year-old NBA center," Collins wrote in an article for Sports Illustrated. "I'm black. And I'm gay."
Just like that, everything was different.
Collins didn't just breakthrough the barrier separating major American sports and the gay community, he annihilated it. By doing what no one before him had done, he set a new precedent, one that now paves the way for other closeted members of the NBA to follow suit. And just as importantly, his peers accepted him. As a man, a player and a friend, they had his back.
Among his proponents was Bryant, the star who helped thrust this issue to the forefront of the public eye. Not that it wasn't a quandary before, but Kobe's status propelled it to prominence. His actions spurred a chain reaction from himself and the league. That's the kind of power he has. And what he did for Collins was a sign of how far the league, how far we've come.
Michael Jordan himself rarely spoke out on important developments like these. Social media wasn't what it is now back then, but he wasn't as vocal as Kobe is. He didn't have the type of reach Bryant has now. Hell, not even a former President of the United States has proved to have that kind of reach (yet).
Bryant is unique is what he does and he does it. And the platform he is using to do it is unprecedented. His voice is heard. That tweet was heard, taken in and transcended into something much bigger.
Athletes are often painted as shallow and egotistical. Their world is mine or yours. They abide by a different set of rules, a completely foreign lifestyle.
The Mamba's pointed embrace of Collins, though, depicts a different type of athlete. Bryant himself has often been portrayed as one of the most self-centered and immature athletes. A purported feud between he and teammate Dwight Howard was blown out of proportion because of how stubborn and mindless he could (see the 2011 incident).
By backing Collins, Kobe is then leading the charge against a longstanding stigma, not just against homophobia, but professional athletes in general. They're growing up. They've been humanized.
They care. Just like you, me and everybody else.
This isn't secluded advancement either. Collins' admittance has reverberated across a vast array of social circles. Political and Sports figureheads have gotten involved, as have pop-culture icons like Spike Lee.
Spike Lee @SpikeLee
Orange And Blue Skies Salutes Jason Collins. Thank You For Your Courage,A Slam Dunk Against HOMOPHOBIA.And Dat's Da "FREEDOM"Truth,Ruth.2013-4-29 16:27:24
Kobe's tweet is part of a cog in a global movement. One that helps unite each and every social class. One that ensures Collins isn't left stranded on island because he opted to break a pattern.
Jason Collins @jasoncollins98
All the support I have received today is truly inspirational. I knew that I was choosing the road less traveled but I'm not walking it alone2013-4-29 22:32:37
More than two years removed from his poor judgement, Kobe's has used this influence to empower Collins and any and all who are in similar situations. And not just in sports, but everywhere. Again, he has the ability to make that impact—in just one tweet.
We may chuckle at him hash-tagging "Mamba Army Stand Up," but it means something. This tweet was more than just aimless musings. Those tens of thousands of retweets prove the exact opposite. His support and open acceptance of Collins only fuels a movement that has been a long-time coming. Which can't be undersold.
Our culture is changing. Slurs aren't just insults or isolated oversights. They're arrogance at its worst. And the longer a man like Collins attempted to conceal his true identity, the more the NBA, the more society was catering to that insolence.
Someone needed to take a stand. And Collins did. Someone with as much worldly influence as Bryant then needed to back him up, to practice what the NBA community preaches, but had not yet to act on. And Bryant, in a single tweet, did. So did plenty others, but knowing who Bryant is, what he has been castigated for in the past and what he has claimed to represent since, his involvement is significant.
It changes things. It changes everything.
Ignorance will never be completely eradicated. Mike Wallace of the Miami Dolphins, who criticized Collins for his decision, showed us that. But it can be combatted.
With the truth.
"By its nature, my double life has kept me from getting close to any of my teammates," Collins wrote (via Sports Illustrated).
His double life, and that of any others who are cloaking personal truths in fear or out of sheer convenience also stalled the progression of professional sports and our culture as whole.
Thanks to Collins, that dichotomy is no longer as prevalent as it once was. And thanks to Kobe, and many others, the path toward absolute reception is no longer merely a concept.
It's a reality.