Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Professional basketball player Jason Collins on Monday publicly declared his homosexuality, becoming the first active player on a major American sports team to do so. Collins was a Washington Wizard at the end of the regular season and is now a free agent. He says he didn’t set out to be a trailblazer but wants to start a conversation about inclusiveness for gay athletes. Kojo explores how Collins’ revelation is likely to change the atmosphere for men and women in professional sports.
- David Zirin Sports Editor, The Nation; Author, "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down" (New Press, 2013)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, how health insurers are gearing up for the next phase of the Affordable Care Act and why one of our region's largest insurers is asking for permission to raise premiums.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first a new era for gay, male athletes in major professional sports in the United States. On Monday, the basketball player Jason Collins did something that no other active athlete in the history of the NBA, NFL, NHL or major league baseball has ever done, go public about being gay while still pursuing a career in his sport.
MR. KOJO NNAMDICollins who played the last few weeks of this most recent season here in Washington wrote in Sports Illustrated that he raised his hand in part because no one had done so already in a culture that's been slower to accept gays than those in other corners of American life.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore the significance of Collins' announcement for both men's and women's sports is Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation. He's the author of several books, the most recent of which is titled "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." Dave, good to see you.
MR. DAVE ZIRINHow great to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIThere's a movie out in theaters right now that depicts the early major league career of Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in professional baseball. You've written in the past that a gay male professional athlete with the courage to suffer could replicate the experience of Robinson's career by playing openly and forcing people to think differently about the testosterone-addled world of sports.
NNAMDIJason Collins took that step yesterday of telling the world he's gay. Does it live up to your expectation for it being a Jackie Robinson kind of moment? Of course it ends the moments where you'll have to stop saying this.
ZIRINThat's very true. For the last three years, I've said that we will see an out male, gay athlete in sports in a matter of months if not weeks. And so the relief of not ever having to say...
ZIRIN…that sentence again is a relief, make no mistake about it. But let's talk about a Jackie Robinson, Jason Collins comparison for a moment because it's evocative, I believe. First and foremost, the main difference is that Jackie Robinson, of course, desegregated major league baseball in 1947, eight years before the Montgomery bus boycotts and the formal start of the civil rights movement. He was, as Dr. King said, a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.
NNAMDISeven years before Brown versus Board of Education.
ZIRINExactly. Now go to Jason Collins for a second. Jason Collins, as he readily acknowledges, is doing this because of the groundwork laid by social movements. Because other people have stood up, it gives him the confidence to speak up.
ZIRINWhether that's people in the streets organizing for marriage equality, whether that's straight male athletes who have stood up like Brendon Ayanbudejo of the Ravens, Scott Fujita and Chris Kluwe, all of whom in the NFL have been advocates for LGBT rights as well as being inspired by people like Brittney Griner, probably the best women's basketball player of her generation who recently came out of the closet and did so, so casually people asked the question whether or not she was actually ever in.
NNAMDIDidn't even make headlines.
ZIRINRight, exactly. So a lot of groundwork was laid for Jason Collins. That being said, it's a Jackie Robinson moment because it's going to force a lot of people who did not want to confront the reality that there is such a thing as a gay, male athlete, this actually does exist. The invisibility ends.
ZIRINThe same way there were people in America in 1947, let's be clear, white people in America in 1947 who did not want to acknowledge that, first of all, the specter of integration which was there in 1947, certainly as well as wanting to acknowledge the fact that African-Americans could not only succeed, but also excel and dominate at sports when they played with whites.
ZIRINThat was not something people wanted to acknowledge as a reality because then you have to accept people's humanity and this is a very similar moment in that regard of people needing to accept the fact that they now know somebody who is part of the gay community.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments on Jason Collins' coming out and what the implications of that are, give us a call 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. What significance do you see in Jason Collins becoming the first male athlete in a major American sport to come out as gay? 800-433-8850. Before we go farther, perhaps it would be instructive to learn a little more about who Jason Collins is.
NNAMDIHe's a veteran player who spent this past season on multiple teams, including the Washington Wizards. He's now a free agent with no guarantee he'll be playing anywhere next season. What do you think he risks professionally, if anything, by making this announcement?
ZIRINI think it would be naïve to think that there are no risks because every NBA team says the last thing they want are distractions and that is such a mantra in locker rooms and pro-sports, that Jason Collins even said that it was a compelling reason for why he didn't come out sooner, was that he did not want to be a distraction.
ZIRINAnd I've always found this argument bizarre because when you think about some of the most successful athletes in history...
NNAMDIKobe Bryant charged with sexual assault. A court case involved, that was not a major distraction, but this guy playing on an NBA team may be a major distraction?
ZIRINOr what about Bill Russell, the great Celtic being an active participant in the Black Liberation struggle and still finding time to win 11 championships in 13 years, not a distraction. So it's a very weak argument and I would argue that that argument about not bringing distractions into the locker room is much more about controlling players than it is about an actual concern about these so-called distractions.
ZIRINI think it's going to be very interesting this off season to see if someone signs Jason Collins. A reporter for ESPN interviewed anonymously 14 general managers. Six said that they believed he would be re-signed. Eight said that he would not.
ZIRINYet all 14 agreed that whether or not he would be re-signed would have nothing to do with his coming out. And I just feel like that strange incredulity to think that that would not be something that would be discussed. And whether that would be affected by the individual politics of ownership or management or whether or not it would be affected by not wanting to turn the team into a media circus, it will certainly be an issue.
NNAMDIIf the eight who said he would not be re-signed are therefore saying that he would not be re-signed purely on the basis of his basketball skills, then I don't know many 7 foot, 255 lb. centers who are willing to throw blocks and do the kind of grunt work under the basket that Jason Collins has been doing, he who won't be re-signed. I see Kwame Brown being re-signed year after year...
NNAMDI...in the NBA.
ZIRINExactly. If you're 7 feet tall and weigh 260 lbs. and are willing to throw your body around, you should be able to find a job. It's very interesting that Doc Rivers, the coach of the Boston Celtics, really, really was upset when the Celtics traded Collins to the Wizards. They wanted to trade Chris Wilcox instead for Jordan Crawford, the player who was exchanged for Collins. And that only couldn't happen because of a snafu in Wilcox' contract.
ZIRINAnd Rivers has said actually very recently that he really wishes Collins was still on the team, that they need another big guy out there, that they miss his leadership in the locker room. So what about the Boston Celtics? They should re-sign him if they miss him so much. And it will be interesting to see if a team is going to say, you know what? This isn't about the circus. This isn't about anything. This is about a 7 foot 260 lb. guy who, by all accounts, by the way is in the best shape of his life.
ZIRINAnd let's see if we can get him on to the court. And I have to say that's such an important part of this story because if he's not able to play again, then we actually miss on some of this Jackie Robinson angle to the story. The idea of acceptance in the locker room, acceptance from fans, and acceptance on the road, all of this, I think, really does need to be a part of finishing this narrative.
NNAMDIOur guest is Dave Zirin. He is sports editor of The Nation, author of several books, the most recent of which is titled "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." We're talking about the decision of NBA player Jason Collins to come out and tell the world that he is gay.
NNAMDIAnd taking your phone calls at 800-433-8850. What do you expect to happen in professional sports now that a male athlete in the NBA has decided to pursue a career as an openly-gay man? Let's hear what James in Takoma Park, Md. has to say. James from the Zirin neighborhood, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESAh, yeah, I think it's going to be interesting to see how the stereotypes evolve because, you know, now you've got professional athletes that are really full of testosterone, hyper aggressive, they have to be in amazing shape that are coming out. And I think the evolution of what we think and how we stereotype gays is going to change over time.
JAMESYou know, when you think about women, professional athletes that might be gay, it's like, oh yeah, well, that makes sense because the more athletic, the more like men. But now I think a lot of those kinds of ignorant stereotypes are going to have to be re-examined if not dropped.
ZIRINSo much to unpack in that. First and foremost, let's be clear. Homophobia was part of the very founding of both men's and women's sports at the turn of the 20th century. As soon as there were organized sports, there was homophobia, but it operated in very different ways.
ZIRINIn men's sports, it was gay people need not apply, basically. Teddy Roosevelt himself, that great proponent of early professional sports and amateur sports, said that sissies did not belong in the locker room.
ZIRINNow for women's sports, it operated differently. There was a concern amongst men, amongst the church, amongst political leaders that women should not play sports because it would turn them into lesbians. It would turn them mannish so it had to come with assurances that no, no, no, this will not be a place that will turn your daughters into lesbians.
ZIRINSo you see the way homophobia operates in both arenas, but operates in very different ways. And I think that in men's sports, the closet has been thicker for precisely that reason, this idea that, okay, well, you have to be in the closet if you're going to be a part of this.
ZIRINAnd I think that the caller is correct in that this will challenge these hyper-masculine stereotypes of what it means to be gay or what it means to be not gay. And frankly that helps all men, whether you're straight or gay. It gets you out of that box that being a man means something.
ZIRINAnd people should read Jason Collins' first-person article in Sports Illustrated because he takes on that exact point, hoping that because he's the 7 foot, 260 lb. guy who is willing to throw his body around, that it will actually challenge people's perceptions of what it means to be a gay man in America.
NNAMDIIn that article he says, my twin brother didn't even know that I was gay.
ZIRINWell, that was very touching especially if you know anything about the Collins' family because they're twins, but Jason is the older brother. He's the older brother in reality in that he was born a couple of minutes before Jarron, but he also was the big star when they played together at Stanford.
ZIRINHe was drafted first into the NBA. He had a better career. He always looked out for Jarron and he says after he told Jarron that he was gay, that he said for the first time in our lives, Jarron said that he was going to look out for me.
NNAMDII have twins, one who keeps referring to his twin as his older brother too, yeah, James, thank you very much for your call. What significance do you see in Collins being a player who has been on so many different teams? He wrote in his piece that if you play the three degrees of Jason Collins' game with the people in the NBA players would find that if he was not their teammate he was almost certainly a former teammate of one of their teammates which means that a lot of players have gotten to know a gay teammate pretty well over the years.
NNAMDIAnd of course, Charles Barkley has famously said he'd rather play with a gay guy who can play than with a straight guy who can't.
ZIRINThat's huge and I want to say why it is. Studies show that the greatest indicator in whether or not a straight person throws the homophobia off their shoulders is whether or not they actually know somebody who part of the LGBT community.
ZIRINLook at Senator Rob Portman out there in Ohio. His son comes out of the closet and all of a sudden, he's for marriage equality because it's his son. I knew several people who said, gee, I really wish that Rob Portman's son needed quality health care. Think about how much better off we would all be? But this is something now in the NBA where a lot of players who may have their own very homophobic ideas. A lot of them know Jason Collins very well. And if they don't know Jason, they know Jarron precisely because he's played for so many different teams.
ZIRINAnd that means that a lot of players who may have very conservative ideas and have expressed them publicly in the past, like say Shaquille O'Neal to use one example, came out very publicly yesterday in support of Jason Collins. Because it's a lot harder to throw shade on somebody if you know them and you want them to have a nice life and you want them to feel like they're a part of the NBA family.
NNAMDIAnd antigay slurs have long been a part of locker rooms, have long been a part of trash talking on the field or on the court, have long been a part of military training that people get from their drill sergeants, etcetera. I suspect that knowing that there's somebody gay in the locker room may tend to change the locker room culture somewhat.
ZIRINI think that's absolutely true. In recent years -- this has changed, this has dissipated in recent years but several years ago one of the things that you always heard in locker rooms -- in professional locker rooms was this phrase no homo. And no homo is what you would say if you are complimenting a male teammate about something. Like, hey those are awesome shoes, no homo. And it even became like a tag that people would use, and still use actually, on Twitter.
ZIRINBut I think that times really are changing and they're not changing in terms of years or months. They're changing in terms of days and hours. One of the great indicators of that to me was here, take someone like Colby Bryant who was caught on camera calling a referee the other F bomb, as it's known. And he, on Twitter, actually criticized his own Twitter followers for using antigay slurs. That happened about eight or nine months ago.
ZIRINAnd then yesterday he was one of the first people to really put out a message of strength and solidarity and respect -- those are his words -- respect for Jason Collins.
NNAMDIOf course what impressed you even more was when a certain former player known as B. (word?) did the same thing.
ZIRINAre you trying to make me swoon live on the air? Well, yes, my boyhood hero, the person who was on my walls growing up, the person whose jersey I wore and then nailed to my wall when I outgrew it. Of course, I'm talking about Bernard King.
NNAMDIB was nasty.
ZIRINI said of course like people would know that. But Bernard King of the New York Knicks, who by the way is pushing 60 years old, just elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was one of the first people to come out also strongly for Jason Collins. And, I mean, I have to say, there is something to say about this kind of eruption of solidarity that took place, this idea that nobody wanted to be the last person to wish him well.
ZIRINSo you get people from Bill Clinton to The Rock, for example, like all trying to jump over themselves to do it. And my favorite might've been Martel Webster I believe, of the Washington Wizards. A lot of Wizards came out and said, you know, we support you. John Wall did, Bradley Beal did. And Martel Webster said, like, we love you Jason. We stand with you, but your jump shot still stinks.
NNAMDIKeep that in mind. Michael in Silver Spring, Md., you're on the air, Michael. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHI. I was just going to say that I agree that I think this is the crack in the dam and it's just the beginning. My son is a collegiate athlete and he came out to me before he went to college. And I was really concerned about how he was going to deal with his teammates. And it's been a complete nonissue. He's been completely accepted by them. And I think you're going to find more and more in the most stereotype of what it is to be gay is just going to get turned on its head.
MICHAELAnd you're going to have lumberjacks, bull riders, I mean, whoever it is, they're going to have gay people coming out in things that people just wouldn't have considered the stereotypical quote unquote "gay" person would be involved in that. So I think gay athletes and across the spectrum are going to be coming out more and more from this.
ZIRINI have to say -- because we talked before about this being a Jackie Robinson moment. I also feel like it's what I want to call a Roger Banister moment. Remember Roger Banister...
NNAMDIThe great miler, yeah.
ZIRIN...the great miler, first person to ever break four minutes in the mile. And nobody thought it could be done. But once he did it, it seemed like everybody was doing it.
NNAMDIStarted doing it, yeah.
ZIRINIt was like a case of mass psychology. And I feel like this really is one of those situations where a lot of male athletes were waiting for that first person to do it. The same way no one wants to be the first person to raise their hand in class. And I think that we are going to start seeing a real cultural seat change, a real shift in professional sports.
NNAMDIWhat are your expectations for how the Jason Collins announcement will spill over into other sports? You wrote a few weeks ago about the National Hockey League, which has joined the formal partnership with its players association and something called The You-Can-Play Project that seeks to end homophobia in locker rooms. You said hockey was showing that jock culture could be transformed into something positive instead of what it's been associated with in the past. How so?
ZIRINAbsolutely. Well, the NHL and the NHL Players Association and the You-Can-Play Project, which was started by the Burke family which, you know hockey, you know that the Burke family are practically royalty when it comes to the world of North American hockey. They started a partnership that actually provides counseling and support for closeted players in NHL locker roomers. There was a recognition that this was actually a problem.
ZIRINAnd it also lays out guidelines as far as homophobic language in locker rooms as well. I mean, it was a very -- it's a very aggressive effort to combat homophobia and to make their league a place that's a safe space for all kids, LGBT kids. It's not something that's just about the NHL. And at the time I knew of a couple of hockey players who were considering coming out of the closet and they didn't. I also had heard like everybody heard about four NFL players, according to Brendon Ayanbadejo, who were considering coming out of the closet as well.
ZIRINOne thing I did not hear about was Jason Collins. So it was this sort of thing, I have to say, where a lot of us were on the edge of our seat waiting for this. I know of a documentary film crew getting a lot of money to make a documentary about the first out player. And they had filmed every aspect of the documentary except the person coming out. And they've had this all done for the last year-and-a-half just waiting. And they didn't see this coming either. But obviously if Jason's twin brother Jarron didn't see it coming then I don't feel too ignorant right now.
NNAMDIThe National Football League took some heat a few months ago when a college prospect said that pro teams scouting him asked about his sexual orientation, quote unquote "asking him whether he liked girls." What was that all about?
ZIRINOh, that was very serious. That was a very serious thing that took place. Because there is a culture in the NFL that you are not supposed to say what goes on when you're in these rooms and they interview and ask you these questions. And this was broken a couple of years ago, you might remember, when Dez Bryant, when he was -- the wide receiver for the Cowboys, when he was interviewed by the Miami Dolphins came forward and said, yeah they asked me if my mother was a prostitute. And this was really shocking that somehow this is okay and acceptable in the way they talk to these young men.
ZIRINAnd this was a situation that was connected, first and foremost, to Manti Teo, the player for Notre Dame who had the imaginary girlfriend much to his tremendous embarrassment during this past college football season. He was asked, and it was a concern in NFL higher up in the general manager's suites about whether or not Manti Teo was in fact in the closet. And other players then came forward at the NFL combine -- the rooky combine and said they were being asked questions about their sexuality.
ZIRINAnd I'll maintain that I think this has less to do with homophobia -- although it is homophobia -- than it has to do with control, and the idea of seeing these players basically as pieces of equipment. And you can't separate them trying to police their sexuality with them not caring too much about whether or not their brains turn to jelly when they're out there on the field. It's about controlling these guys and commodifying them and using them basically as interchangeable products when they're in the field of play.
ZIRINAnd I think that the idea of players standing up and asserting their humanity in the face of that is in and of itself a political act.
NNAMDIDave Zirin. He is sports editor at The Nation. He's the author of several books, the most recent of which is titled "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." Dave, good to see you again.
ZIRINMy privilege, Kojo.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, how health insurers are gearing up for the next phase of the Affordable Care Act and why one of our region's largest insurers is asking for permission to raise premiums. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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