Basketball player Jason Collins is the first openly gay, active male athlete in a major U.S. professional team sport. Now, the debate.
Is Collins a hero for coming out as he did? Of course, heroism depends entirely on the stakes. What did Collins risk by coming out? He’s already a well-liked, veteran NBA player with, if he’s been smart, a ton of money and all the trappings of celebrity. One has to wonder what a rookie would be risking–endorsement deals, salary, playing time, friends, fans?–if he were to come out at the start of his career. Even riskier, some believe, would be a big star, with many endorsements on the line.
Let me come back to Collins. Another celebrity who’s earning the hero moniker is Ben Affleck, who recently announced he’d live on $1.50 a day to bring attention to the plight of poverty. While a well-intentioned adventure, again one must question the stakes. While it will certainly be difficult for a man accustomed to the finer things in life to subsist on such a paltry daily allowance, unlike everyone else in poverty, Ben has the comfort of knowing that when his week is done he can return to his lavish lifestyle and the freedom of not having to worry if he can afford diapers for his baby son. Poverty isn’t just a fun math problem to solve, it takes a serious emotional toll that Ben will fortunately never know. It isn’t brave to choose to be poor for a week.
Like Ben, Collins has the luxury to announce he is a gay man when countless others before him had to suffer real consequences–consequences as dire as murder, in Matthew Shepherd’s case.
But, unlike Ben, Collins isn’t a straight man who decided to live as a gay man for a week, just to see what it would be like. He’s lived with his homosexuality, often uncomfortably, for decades, and his coming out is a decision to live an honest life. That’s commendable.
While the stakes might be lower for Collins than they were for others before him, and this hardly seems like a hostile climate in which to be a famous gay man, what he did may actually save a life. LGBT teens and young adults have one of the highest rates of suicide attempts in the country. His coming out could send a strong message to young gay men, especially in black communities, that being gay doesn’t make you any less of a man. That is a very good thing.
But heroes are the unsung, the uncelebrated, the unrewarded average people risking their lives, performing extraordinary acts of selflessness, valor and compassion. He may not be a hero for admitting he’s gay, but Jason Collins performed an invaluable service yesterday, the effects of which we may never fully know.