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May 6, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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Hoopin’ and Hollerin’

On 20 April, the NBA Playoffs began. The Washington Wizards finished the regular season with 29 wins, 53 losses—they’d be watching the playoffs from home. As the players took stock of a disappointing year, each went their separate ways. Star John Wall went home to North Carolina after averaging a career-high 18.5 points per game; still not enough to send the third-year guard into the playoffs for the first time. Swingman Trevor Ariza reflected on what was a mediocre season by his standards, his productivity having continuously fallen since helping the Lakers to a championship in 2009. And centre Jason Collins, a 12-year veteran of the league, coming off a quiet season in the twilight of his career, became the first major American professional athlete to come out as gay while still active in a major league.

Such an announcement may not seem all that far-fetched, and indeed, it was only a matter of time before the sports world broke the ceiling already cleft in the arts, political, and business worlds. What sets Collins’ announcement apart is the alpha-masculism and homophobia so entrenched in male sports, where unbridled testosterone is currency in the pursuit of victory. Such an environment is anathema to inclusivity and support for anything seen as inferior, emasculating or weak. Having spent time in a semi-professional basketball team, I can assure readers of the often latent, sometimes unashamed bigotry which exists. On one occasion my team sat post-training as one senior player angrily lamented: “you used to be able to call people a ‘fuckin’ faggot’, now you can’t!”. Another added, “I’m not homophobic, I’m fine with gay people, but”—and this was spoken earnestly, as if there was a genuine belief the ‘but’ excused the following—”just as long as they’re not gay around me”.

Collins came out by way of a beautifully penned long-form statement published in Sports Illustrated, wherein he covers his struggles with his identity, emphasises that his sexuality should not change how he is accepted, seeks to allay the fears of homophobic players, and outlines his hopes for the future. Since the announcement, he has been supported by his family, members of his team, NBA management, other NBA players, and even the President of the United States. In the context of sport’s underlying homophobia, the value of the public nature of this support can not be understated: what was in many ways a final frontier to equal acceptance just became that much less formidable for those still waiting to feel accepted. Though this will by no means flick a universal switch in sports culture, it is the start of the wave which has already passed through every domain but professional sports. The wave looks set to continue, with NFL player and queer-rights advocate Brendon Ayanbadejo saying earlier in April that four NFL players are expected to come out together soon.

On court, Jason Collins sets picks, fouls hard and gets baskets, just like any other player. What separates him in the eyes of his detractors is who he loves, off court, outside the lines. The baseline, the sidelines, the key, are artificial constructions on a plane of hardwood, and in no way change the person who steps in between them. Just as artificial is the line drawn between ‘us’ and ‘them’, by virtue of who a person loves. I salute Jason Collins, and I hope his announcement illustrates just how arbitrary painted lines of all sorts really are.

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