Before yesterday, the reality was that there had never been a person in major American professional sports to discuss their being gay. With the online release of Jason Collins’ forthcoming Sports Illustrated article, that shameful reality met its overdue demise. At 34, Collins is at the sunset of a largely unremarkable 12-year NBA career during which he’s never averaged more than 7 points per game, never been to an NBA final, and never been an all-star. He’s considered (and generously so) a defensive specialist who makes the most of being tall and having six times to hack an opponent before he fouls out of a game.
By contrast, at 34 years of age, Michael Jordan was winning his 6th NBA Championship, averaged more than 30 points per game for his career, was a perennial all-star, and was widely considered the greatest basketball player to have ever played. That’s debatable, but certainly possible.
By the time I turned 34, my athletic “career” consisted of being a three-sport athlete in high school, having lasted in college wrestling just long enough for Coach Cotton to tell me that practices began at 5:00 “am, not pm”. I was a small but very athletic kid who was never was more than just “pretty good” at any particular sport. And at 5’ 6”, I would have been lucky to score seven points in an NBA season, much less per game. (I was, however, voted county Coach of the Year, placing me firmly in the Pantheon of great wrestling coaches, according to my mother.)
According to the numbers, the three of us ain’t on the same page athletically. Not even in the same book. In fact, you’d need three separate books, and mine doesn’t even belong in the same library.
That said, I’d rather be more like Jason than like Mike.
I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be an athlete the likes of Jordan or even Collins. I do, however, have an excellent idea of what “the guys’ locker room” is like; its codes of conduct, the sanctity of what’s said there, the hypermasculine posturing… I could at least, after a particularly putrid performance on the wrestling mat, come back into the locker room and talk bullshit about what I wanted to do with some girl who of course would have been oh-so-impressed to see me flailing around out there in my singlet. I could pretend to be better than I was at wrestling, but I didn’t have to pretend to like girls.
That’s something that Collins, a 7’ tall star throughout high school and college, who literally and figuratively towered over his competition, never had. Never being able to “just blend in” physically, he was forced by societal pressures, outright bigotry, and unwritten locker room codes to also blend in emotionally. Collins’ life of denial included eight years with a woman who unwittingly acted as his beard while he coped with his suppressed sexual identity. His decision to break off their engagement and to tell his story to Sports Illustrated is a truly courageous one. It should be inspiring to everyone who faces challenges not only due to their cultural identifiers, but to anyone who faces a daunting task that has a reward that extends beyond their own safety and comfort. In one simple, yet important statement about who he is, Jason Collins has become a trailblazer, a lightning rod, a beacon, an example, and a shield for so many who share his challenges or similar ones. Most importantly, his example of bravery and ownership of his identity in the face of an improving, but still dangerous social space in our society is monumental for LGBTQ people in particular.
Coincidentally, while Jason Collins was coming out and subsequently leaving his long-time fiancé, Michael Jordan was marrying his. (I gotta say I ain’t mad at all at 50 year-old Mike for pulling a 35 year-old “model”. Model gets the quotation marks, because even nanny “model” Elin Nordegren has at least three different “modeling photos” when you Google her name and modeling. Yvette Prietto, on the other hand, ain’t got no pictures nowhere! No ‘Pacs, none! [/Eminem in 8 Mile]). To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with that, and his marriage and Jason Collins’ decision have nothing to do with each other besides their timing.
It does, however, highlight the dearth of non-basketball social relevance Michael Jordan has had during his lifetime.
For someone who is arguably one of the most popular and recognizable people in the history of civilization, Michael Jordan has stood for nothing greater than drinking sugary sports drinks and wearing cheap draws. In the past, I’ve described Jordan as a political eunuch whose most important social “statement” came in the 1990s when he said to a friend, “Republicans wear sneakers too”, after being asked to endorse African American Harvey Gantt, the then Charlotte mayor who was running against poster-bigot Jesse Helms for one of North Carolina’s Senatorial seats. I now begrudgingly give Jordan a modicum of credit for hosting a fundraiser last summer for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. Still, for a man who has so much presence, his silence becomes all the all the more deafening. And defining.
Mind you, I don’t expect every athlete to be outspoken or courageous or political, but those who transcend? I expect them to stand for something. Hell, anything! Jordan has donated money, but for him to state an opinion on, for example, “improving education” would be a safe and politically neutral thing to do. Can he at least do that? Endorse exercise programs? Give a shout out to the American Humane Society? Anything? Apparently not.
And don’t try to tell me Michael Jordan symbolizes abstract concepts like “excellence”. “Excellence” is embodied by the men in the picture above. “Winning”? Bill Russell would think Mike’s six championship rings are “cute”, and matter of fact, he’s in that picture above. Scoring? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored over 6000 more points than Mike. He’s in that picture up there too. Toughness? Don’t make Jim Brown laugh. He’s in the pic… you get the point. What does Michael Jordan symbolize? The stench of silence while holding the power of deity-like celebrity.
The year Jason Collins was drafted, “Air” Jordan was injury-prone and ground-bound, shooting numerous turnaround jumpshots for the hapless Washington Wizards. The Wizards had taken Kwame Brown, a 19 year-old high school phenom with the first pick in that same draft. Brown had all of the athletic ability and potential the later-selected Collins never had, but was still raw. At one point during practice, His Airness became fed up with his talented-but-mercurial young franchise center calling him a “flaming faggot” in an expletive-ridden tirade. A little farther up I-95 in New Jersey, Jason Collins had a pedestrian season for the Nets, playing a backup center role. In relative silence. Maybe we’ll find out that he heard similar things in his locker room, but none of them would be said by Michael Jordan. And none of them would impugn his precariously hidden sexual identity.
So here we are 12 years later. Kwame Brown has stumbled around the NBA, never having fulfilled his potential. It’s unfair and patently untrue to say that Michael Jordan destroyed him, and I won’t claim that. But could he have been a better influence? Absolutely. On and off the court. Michael Jordan is one of the greatest basketball players to ever pick up a Spaulding, a billionaire, and just married his “model” girlfriend. Jason Collins is a pretty bad basketball center who just eclipsed and completely obliterated anything Jordan ever did socially with one very important and very brave Sports Illustrated article. He’s now poised to have a legacy in service to people, even if he’s simply an example of bravery to them.
And me? I’m a doctoral student, college instructor, and wrestling coach who comments on, teaches, and lives the life lessons learned from athletics. And when I teach my students and athletes, I’ll be encouraging them to be bold and important. Like Jason.
Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry has taught grades 6 through 20, and has been a wrestling coach for the past 15 years. He has worked at both public and independent schools from Minnesota to Florida to Washington and other places in between. Maurice is currently an adjunct college instructor while working on his PhD in multicultural education at the University of Washington. *He’s also an infinitely better wrestler now than he was before, and would love to have a do-over these days with the dudes he wrestled in high school!*