In the wake of Jason Collins coming out as the first openly gay NBA athlete last spring, a common refrain—typically sounded by supporters—concerned yearning for the day when such news, owing to growing acceptance in greater society, needn’t be news at all.
While we’re still a ways away from that scenario, perhaps the steadily quieting reaction to Collins’ recent signing with the Brooklyn Nets through the 2013-14 season is a hint, albeit slight, of a coming harmony.
Still, it’s well worth reminding ourselves—even if only every once in a while—of just how momentous the announcement was.
Case in point: In an email delivered to Bleacher Report, the NBA has announced it will auction off a series of autographed, game-worn Jason Collins jerseys beginning at 12 p.m. EST Friday afternoon:
All proceeds from the sales of his No. 98 jerseys have benefitted the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and the Matthew Shepard Foundation. All sales from the auctioned jerseys will also be donated to these organizations.
Here’s a bit of what the league had to say about its motivation:
The NBA has a long history of supporting the LGBT community including partnerships with GLSEN, GLAAD and Athlete Ally and was the recipient of the 2012 Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion Award at the GLSEN Respect Awards. In addition, Jason Collins received the 2013 Courage Award at the 10th annual GLSEN Respect Awards and Denver Nuggets star Kenneth Faried was awarded the 2012 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, in part because of his relationship with Athlete Ally.
Say what you will about the NBA’s wider business practices, but few can deny the genuine thoughtfulness with which it’s handled the aftermath of Collins’ announcement.
As for Collins himself, his contributions have been as advertised: providing veteran leadership, a trusted locker room voice and solid—if sparse—on-court contributions when needed.
That’s not to say there wasn’t a little trepidation, of course. Writing at ESPN, Kevin Arnovitz—as eloquent and nuanced a voice as you’ll find on the subject—underscored the potential paradox of having the game’s first openly gay athlete playing beneath the world’s most searing media spotlight:
Collins’ identity and confidence will come in handy because the spotlight is about to turn even brighter. He’ll be moving to a perfect market for his endeavor, but New York is also a media circus. Those executives who cited the media glare as a legitimate deterrent were misguided, but they weren't incorrect about its existence. Collins’ integration into the league will probably be somewhat disruptive. There will likely be awkward and obtrusive moments for some of his teammates. More and more pro athletes are ready to accept a gay teammate, but not every 24-year-old NBA player has the confidence, vocabulary or cultural sensibility to speak confidently about homosexuality.
And while it hasn’t been totally smooth sailing—his interaction with one NBA “knucklehead” being the most poignant example—Collins’ experience with the Nets has been every bit as positive as most believed, as he recently relayed to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:
This shows that ‘distraction’ is B.S. That it’s about the team, it’s about the sport. I hope this shows all players that you can still have your life off the court and not have to hide anything… That’s a credit to my teammates and the entire Nets organization from ownership to coaching to teammates to everyone.
Viewed through a certain prism, the NBA capitalizing—even from a PR perspective—on Collins’ courage would seem to risk coming off as schlocky opportunism.
Lest you fall victim to such cynicism, take a second to flip through NBA's auction catalog. Autographs from superstars, NBA legend memorabilia, swag from All-Star weekend: Jason Collins fits none of these profiles. Never has.
Which is exactly the point. The fact the NBA is doing this at all is, in itself, yet another strong vote of confidence. As if to say, “What Jason did, when all’s said and done, is still a big deal, and we’re acknowledging it as such.”
Because when it comes to such tacit gestures, as with every dollar the auction fetches for the aforementioned causes, every little bit counts.