(the late Larry Miller, shown during a rare moment when he wasn’t encouraging his players to come out of the closet)
In the past day and a half since Jason Collins announced to the world that he
buys dogs from Mike Miller is gay, those who’ve found fault with the story have mostly centered on issues of sexuality and morality. Writing for The Guardian on Tuesday, columnist Jason Farago took an altogether different tact, alternately bemoaning the media diss of Martina Navratilova and Brittney Greiner (“It’s slightly embarrassing to see how many adjectives were required to assign the requisite significance to Collins’s coming out: the first active (1) male (2), openly (3) gay player in a major (4) American (5) team (6) sport..none of those, somehow, mattered to Sports Illustrated, which had the gall to headline its cover story on Collins as ‘The Gay Athlete’ – complete with definite article, as if he was the only one”) and what he considers to be a cynical cash-grab.
Why has the coming out of one talented but not tremendously distinguished player, a free agent for goodness’ sake, mattered so much more than those of gold medalists and World Cup champions? Well, why does anything matter in America? The NBA and the other American pro leagues are where the money is, and far from discouraging disclosures like Collins’, teams and advertisers are now practically begging athletes to come out – salivating at the marketing potential of a gay man in the pros. Brendon Ayanbadejo, an advocate for gay equality in football, told a reporter this month that studios already have movie scripts ready to go. Asked about the prospects of a gay player in the NBA, the unctuous Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said, “It would be a marketing goldmine for all involved.”
Even the homophobes are starting to get that. Tim Hardaway, who “let it be known” that he hates gays, got banished from the NBA’s all-star game and saw his endorsements evaporate. This week, Brittney Griner, probably the highest-profile gay athlete in America, disclosed that she had inked a major endorsement deal with Nike. She wouldn’t say how much it was worth, only that it was “big time”. Jason Collins, now at the tail end of his career, probably won’t enjoy the same golden benefits, but somebody in the NBA or the NFL will very soon. Is that something to celebrate? Of course it is, on one level: sport is more than just a spectacle, and every action that makes gay life more visible is worth taking.
But while Collins has done something right and brave, the PR flood that’s accompanied it should remind us that sport is not some pure land of athletic contests, but a multibillion-dollar industry whose motivations are not exactly altruistic. We should all respect and celebrate gay achievements – but I fear the real desire for openly gay athletes comes from a hunger to sell sneakers.
I’m gonna presume that despite bragging he has “no special interest in the glossy corporate spectacle of American sport”, Farago has some inside sources in the front offices of NBA franchises. Otherwise, I’d be slightly surprised to learn the Utah Jazz are breathing down players’ necks, “practically begging” them to come out.