No matter where you stand on the signing of Jason Collins, who -- once he steps on the court in a Nets uniform -- will become the first openly gay athlete to participate in any of the four major North American sports, there's no denying the gravity of this moment. For those inside the LGBT community, this was an achievement long in the making.
And for a country that has taken gigantic strides towards equality for all, regardless of sexual orientation, it is a breaking of a barrier that warrants joy.
Once whispers began that Collins had worked out for the Nets, there was debate about the merits of his signing. The more innocuous: Is he done? At 35 years old with the mileage of 11 NBA seasons on him, it's certainly worth asking. But Brooklyn isn't requiring that Collins be the 24.5 minutes per game player he was when he played for the New Jersey incarnation of this franchise. He's simply being asked to be a presence inside; to ensure that Jermaine O'Neal doesn't have his best NBA game in four years, for example.
But the query more likely to crackle in the fires of debate: Is this good for a team trying to push themselves into the playoffs? Or is it merely a distraction?
Some have lined up on each side of the argument, as exchanges have already started to make it's way around the social media zeitgeist in the last few days. One, in fact, took place Saturday morning between, what I consider to be , two great friends to the site: John Paolantonio of Pings Hoops and Nets Income of NetsDaily.
Paolantonio said Collins doesn't fit for Brooklyn because he's a "non-athletic big and circus is not what Nets need" when things have seemingly leveled off after the Nets' turbulent start. He reiterated that it has nothing to do with personal beliefs, simply how the inevitable media crush will affect a team with playoff aspirations. Income returned that, for a 10 day contract, it wouldn't be much of a distraction. The conversation devolved for there, but I believe those two lines of thought are fairly consistent with Nets' fans lines of thinking, and both have merit. But for me, while there may have been better fits from a basketball standpoint, the chance at witnessing history leaves me inspired.
A third camp does exists: those who would throw cold water on the implications of a moment like this. A breaking down of a barrier with a Brooklyn team draws obvious parallels -- ones that other Nets fans, bloggers, and I have made the past week or so -- and some don't agree that Collins and Jackie Robinson's situations are equal:
"Honestly, comparing Robinson] to Collins is ludicrous.The mistreatment of Jackie was 1,000 times worst and was 1,000 times more meaningful [than] J. Collins," tweeter Joseph Imperial said in response to a NetsDaily tweet. "You act like no one accepts homosexuality, when in reality, it is ok. It was blatant racism back then, but I don't see same hate with gays."*
Listen, we may be blessed to live in a town, a city, or even a state that understands, even embraces homosexuality. But there always will be people who don't. Not all of those people live in one part of the country, nor do they do one specific job. Some of them are even basketball players -- maybe even some that dress in the Barclays Center locker room. To suggest that this doesn't test those same boundaries, that it sparks similar rhetoric and debate that Robinson did over six decades ago, would be ignoring the overtones of American culture for the majority of the country's history.
Collins began wearing number 98 in honor of Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured and murdered because of his sexual orientation in October that year. That was just over 15 years ago. It was as recently as 2004 that homosexuality was used as a wedge issue in a Presidential election. Many politicians began discovering their opinions on homosexuality had begun "evolving" only two or three years ago. There's no doubt the country has great steps towards equality, but to suggest it's a distant issue is dangerous and naive.
Fortunately, many Nets have come out in support of Collins. Deron Williams said, "It's 2014," when explaining why he thought the country was ready for an openly gay athlete. Kevin Garnett told reporters: "I think it's important that anybody who has the capabilities and skill level to have a chance to something he's great at." But there's no doubt Collins will run into his distractors, and not just because he's a veteran player on his last legs. On Sunday night, though, an openly gay man will put on a professional sports uniform. he'll dress in a locker room, and he'll redefine an arcane idea of what is "macho" or "masculine" is for a great number of men and women, both young and old.
I'll watch, I'll cheer, I'll remember where I was. History has once again reached Brooklyn's doorstep, and I couldn't be happier we're once again answering it's call.