By deeming Jason Collins the first openly gay athlete in a major American team sport, what is Sports Illustrated really saying?
Twitter was an irksome site to visit on Monday. It wasn’t for anything that was specific to Twitter’s function as a site, but rather something that hung amid the top trending topics that was constantly reminding me of something I have a problem with. It was a phrase, a name, actually: “Jason Collins.”
In case you missed it yesterday, Jason Collins is a professional basketball player here in America, and yesterday Sports Illustrated threw him a big coming out party. Collins has come out as the “first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport.” Quickly, similar sentiments were echoed in headlines across the Internet, all emphasizing the same word: first.
I want to be clear about something before I continue: my problem isn’t with Jason Collins or his decision to come out as gay. I’m glad that Collins chose to come out. No one should feel coerced to perform as somebody they’re not because much of our culture is still intolerant of any type of person who is perceived as different. For that, I applaud Collins and those like him.
No, my problem is with how our pro-hetero culture and its multiple mouthpieces, such as Sports Illustrated, have set the stage for Collins’ story. Did you notice all of those adjectives in the epithet above? First. Openly gay. Playing. Major American sport. Team sport. It’s awkwardly exact in its phrasing, and for a very specific reason.
Apparently this is a thing, this vigilant watch for the first openly gay male athlete in a major American team sport. It isn’t enough, I suppose, that there are already many American athletes who are out. Straight America seems to have had a particular construct in mind. And since this search is fixed on a specific type of “first” person, all of the gay and lesbian athletes that came out before Collins haven’t been the right kind of openly gay athlete to be called First—at least, not the kind of first that fits into the script created by the hetero-normative America.
To be clear that this First Gay watch is a fascination of Straight America, compare the Collins article with a recent feature by Outsports on Alan Gendreau, an openly gay football player striving to land a job in the NFL. Nowhere in the Outsports article does it unnecessarily focus on Gendreau being The First. Outsports only mentions the milestone of Gendreau being the first out gay player in the NFL simply because it’s not something that’s happened before. There’s no insincere branding of him being First. The focus is on Gendreau as a football player who also happens to be openly gay. It wasn’t until The New York Times picked up the story that Gendreau was repositioned as a possible First Gay Athlete. (Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Outsports published their article on April 26th, three days before Sports Illustrated first published its feature on Jason Collins.)
Sports Illustrated, on the other hand, is determined to handle Collins’s coming out announcement as their introduction of the heralded First that Straight America has been fixated on.
This made-up “search” for such a gay athlete reminds me of a scene from an episode of Louis, where Louis CK and several of his friends are sitting around playing poker. All of them are men, and all are straight except for one man. Eventually, the conversation turns to the sexual orientation of the one gay man, and the straight men ask him a series of questions about his sexual activities. Finally, he points out to them, “I talk about gay sex more with you guys than I do with any of my gay friends. You guys are obsessed.”
That sums it up right there: Straight America is obsessed with the First Openly Gay Athlete Playing in a Major American Team Sport, and wants so desperately to be the one to pick which athlete shall be branded as such. This mediation of who will be recognized as the First Openly Gay Athlete is laden with several -isms—elitism, sexism, capitalism, etc.—that the import of Collins’s decision to come out becomes mired.
By promoting Collins’ story as first, the public is zipped into a frame of mind where athletes are categorized as who was out first, which forces the public’s focus on the athlete’s sexuality first and athletic prowess second. More over, it’s completely fucked up that Straight America has designated itself as the entity that determines which athlete will be this vaunted First Openly Gay. As a result, the Collins feature becomes a coddling coming out story managed in a specific way so as to not offend the sensibilities of Sports Illustrated’s typically hetero male audience. By establishing an enclosed mold for what it is to be the first openly gay athlete completely ignores the fluidity of human sexuality, and creates a problematic binary of what should and shouldn’t be considered as gay.
If you doubt that argument, just look at the lead photos that Sports Illustrated chose to run with the Collins feature. They look more like senior photo glamor shots than photos you’d expect to see of a professional athlete in a magazine dedicated toward covering sports.
The juxtaposition of the Collins’s cover of Sports Illustrated with the preceding week’s cover is telling. In the previous week, the cover story featured another NBA player next to a quoted statement about how he would like to change the course of his life—similar to how you see the Collins cover. The difference, however, is how on the previous week’s cover, we see Kevin Durant, the aforementioned NBA player, in action (shooting a basketball) with a quote about not wanting to be second place anymore hanging behind him.
Kevin Durant, however, isn’t the one talking about coming out as gay. Jason Collins is talking about coming out as gay. So Sports Illustrated dutifully shifted their artistic direction so as to make sure that Collins fit into the script of what it believes being gay in Straight America should look like.
The most disappointing aspect of Sports Illustrated’s branding of Collins as First coming out story—and this is why it was so vexing to constantly see “Jason Collins” in the top worldwide trends of Twitter all day on Monday—is because the marketing strategy clearly worked. Sports Illustrated’s well-placed cheese baited everyone to talk about it, therefore generating more of a buzz. And for Sports Illustrated, more buzz equals more money.
More than anything, Sports Illustrated’s decision to feature Collins’ announcement that he’s gay seems like a squandered opportunity to have a truly meaningful discussion with openly gay athletes. Instead of coddling to the delicate sensibilities of its predictably straight audience, Sports Illustrated could have guided the narrative into a much more insightful and unique direction. The article could have taken on any number of topics, what it’s like to be black and gay in America, or what it means to be masculine and gay in a predominantly straight sport. Perhaps these perspectives may be too academic for Sports Illustrated’s regular readers, but the opportunity to talk about such issues feels wasted when the alternative was to publish a feature that was less focused on challenging misconceptions of gay identity and, instead, creating hype.
It’s worked remarkably well. People across the Internet talked about it all day, and I imagine that the people out in their offices and dinner tables were talking about it, as well. They’re probably still talking about it and will continue to talk about it for the days to come. That’s good, I suppose. And I’m glad that Collins will now be able to finally live as himself.
But I can’t help but feel that although Sports Illustrated and its Straight America brethren claim to be promoting broader discussion on tolerance, they are instead reinforcing the rigid way in which a hetero-normative culture sees gays and lesbians.
Drew Bowling is a writer, erstwhile photographer, and highly decorated factotum living somewhere in the United States. His writing lingers on language, gender, mental health, and occasional raves about outer space. Keep up with his fancy musings over on Twitter.