On April 29, Jason Collins announced to the world that he was gay.
It was monumental in that he became the first active player in any of the four major American professional sports to come out publicly. He instantly became a symbol for society's growing acceptance of gay men and women in society. Players, the league, the media and fans seemed to support Collins fully and accept him for who he is.
At the time, Collins was just completing his 12th season in the NBA, finishing up a 38-game stint with the Celtics and Wizards. He was 34 and a fringe NBA player, doing the dirty work and eating up garbage time for most of his career. Now, he was a free agent.
The question remained: Who would take the step and sign him? Who would be the team to give him the chance? Would he earn his chance?
It may not be a matter of Collins' status as a pioneer, but a matter of Collins' age keeping him out of the league. Training camps have opened and the veteran center and defender always good for a few minutes or a body in practice has yet to be signed.
Collins said he has put himself in the best shape of his career to try and give teams a reason to take on the media crush that is likely to come with his arrival. He is hopeful that a team will give him a veteran's minimum contract once the season begins and the contenders begin to shake out.
Collins, already incredibly gracious, is under no illusions that he is a star in this league.
Still, you cannot help but suspect the worst for this landmark player on a still touchy issue — particularly among players who may be more religious.
You don’t want to speculate – I don’t go there,” Collins told Harvey Araton of the New York Times. “I feel there are players in the league right now that, quite frankly, I’m better than."
It is still a sticky issue socially, even in NBA locker rooms. Publicly people say the right things — and that is a step in the right direction toward acceptance, even a small one — but there are still some big hurdles to clear.
Kevin Arnovitz of TrueHoop talked about what the Jason Collins announcement could be meaning in locker rooms. That answer remains a bit ambiguous. Especially behind closed doors and away from the media.
Over the course of our chat [with an NBA coach], which covered topics ranging from theology to how values are instilled in human beings, this coach offered up a prediction: An active NBA player would come out pretty soon. The public reaction to the announcement would be positive. A few high-profile players and coaches would voice overwhelming support for the player, and the media would celebrate the moment.
But back in the locker room, the majority of the league’s rostered players would still be uncomfortable with the idea of sharing close space with a gay teammate, according to the coach. When the cameras and digital recorders are turned off, the attitudes of the median player in the NBA were closer to those of the coach, not mine.
There are still things to consider — both on and off the court — as teams decide whether to sign Jason Collins.
There is the likely media crush (certainly initially) that teams may or may not want to deal with. Collins does not think it would be that big of a deal as it would die down fairly quickly. It is still a question every player on the team would have to answer at every pit stop along the NBA trail.
Other than that, it is personal feelings and acceptance that could prevent Collins from entering the locker room. That will take more time.
The discussion has begun however, and that part is important even if it is not the final destination for acceptance in the league or this becoming a complete non-issue that nobody cares about. The comments Arnovitz was able to collect show we are not there yet, there are still questions about how people will react and whether a locker room can stay together.
Collins is likely also in the normal squeezing out of veterans at the end of the bench. He is a 12-year veteran and it obviously costs a bit more to pay him than a first- or second-year player. And Collins' long-term future with any team he signs with will also be short. Unless there is a specific team looking for a veteran center at this point of the year, Collins may not have many callers for his services.
The reasons Collins is not signed yet likely has more to do with his age and abilities on the floor than the announcement he made off of it at this point. If Collins does not end up playing this year in the NBA, it will not lessen the impact of his announcement.