Reaction to Jason Collins shows that people are more enlightened

Jason Collins, then of the Atlanta Hawks, looks

Jason Collins, then of the Atlanta Hawks, looks on during a game against the San Antonio Spurs at Philips Arena. (Credit: Getty, 2011)

Whatever the Robert's Rules of Order in this already sweeping discussion of NBA veteran Jason Collins' acknowledged homosexuality, impact-by-osmosis appears inevitable.

As the first active male athlete in a major American team sport to make public that he is gay, Collins -- who came out this past week in an interview with Sports Illustrated -- is bound to hasten a conversation that will reach players, coaches and fans on all levels.

"The sports culture is a copycat culture in America," said Duke University anthropologist Orin Starn, who often studies the intersection of sports and society. "If LeBron James wears Nikes, kids will wear Nikes. If the Fab Four wears their shorts long, kids will wear their shorts long. In that sense, having Jason Collins there as a role model is hugely important.''

Maybe the sports world will model the prevailing notion of acceptance so widely voiced by public figures and Collins' many NBA associates after his declaration. Insults and trash-talking hardly will disappear overnight, but maybe Collins advanced the attitudinal change cited by Xavier University psychology professor Christopher End, who often examines fan conduct.

"We saw, with the Rutgers coach," End said, "that he lost his job" after videotapes surfaced of Mike Rice hurling basketballs and homophobic slurs at his players.

To Stony Brook University sociology professor Michael Kimmel, who has written extensively on men and masculinity, the "real story" in the Collins revelation "is that this is not really a story. We're not saying 'oh my god.' We're saying, "It's about time.'

"Look at the response," he added. "Every single athlete is lining up to be photographed with Collins on the red carpet . . .''

There is widespread agreement that there have been what Kimmel calls "dizzying changes" in national attitudes toward homosexuals. And it long has been assumed that there are gay male athletes in big-time professional sports, even though only retired players such as basketball's John Amaechi and football's Dave Kopay had made public their sexual orientation.

The topic of how people would react to what some have called the "gay Jackie Robinson" -- though New York Times columnist Frank Bruni noted that Robinson had been "openly black" before playing in the big leagues -- has been raised so regularly in recent years that End, working with six other academics at Shippensburg University, initiated a 2009 study to calculate fans' impressions.

End and his team created a fictional player named Mike who strikingly prophesied the 2013 Collins: Mike "has been playing . . .for years . . . is well liked and respected by both his teammates and his coaches . . . has a reputation for being a hard-working contributor . . . dedicated to his team's success."

Then Mike, in the imagined narrative, comes out as gay. What the study found was that fans had no more negative impressions of Mike than they did of any other player. "But the caveat," End warned in a telephone interview, "is that the scenario we described was that the player is a member of your team. And we know opposing fans may not act as favorably as the home fans."

Also, the study polled college students, and all evidence indicates that the younger generation is far more open to a live-and-let-live disposition toward sexual lifestyles than their elders.

Starn found the "barrage of congratulatory twitters" in reaction to Collins "was great, that all these people have Jason Collins' back. But it also felt self-congratulatory, like we are congratulating our own new enlightened tolerance of these issues."

Kimmel, while contending that "homophobia has fallen off a cliff," also recognized as "still alive" the "question of homosexuality as not being masculine, which is still a motivating force'' for the likes of the dismissed Rice.

"The sports world," Kimmel said, "has always been an arena in which men prove their manhood. And if you associate homosexuality with not being a real man . . . "

The "real man" thing prompted Bobby Knight to leave sanitary napkins in the lockers of his basketball players whom he judged to be lacking toughness, and less crude coaches to routinely accuse young male athletes of "playing like girls" as a motivating ploy.

"The gay identity," Starn said, "is so wrapped up in the idea of feminine characteristics, and that's about stigmatizing femininity as well as sexuality. Sports is a place where the sacred bundle of heterosexual manhood is passed down from generation to generation.

"You know: 'You're a warrior, you're competitive, you're strong and you're straight.' There's an expectation of a John Wayne masculinity."

But now that Collins has presented this new information about himself to his many fellow workers, they -- and the wider sports world -- must integrate that with what they already knew of him.

"People talk in terms of reducing prejudice," End said. "And it's by increasing inter-group interaction. Then you don't have the limited stereotypical view you might have had. It becomes silly to classify this person."

In that sense, Collins may qualify as the gay Jackie Robinson.