By Rodger Streitmatter—LGBT-Today Columnist
Any number of the recent stories about Jason Collins coming out as a gay professional athlete—including the one that led the CBS Evening News on Monday—likened the basketball player to Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947.
The comparison is an apt one, as both athletes are courageous pioneers.
Anyone who’s familiar with the details of Robinson’s story, however, knows that professional baseball’s first African-American player wouldn’t have made history if it hadn’t been for a man named Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Rickey was determined to sign the league’s first African-American player, so he sent scouts to check out any number of prospects on several teams in the Negro American Baseball League. Rickey eventually settled on Robinson not so much because of his athletic abilities—other black players were as good or better—but because the general manager thought this particular 26-year-old had the temperament that would allow him to handle the abuse he’d undoubtedly face.
Please know that I’m not trying to take anything away from Robinson. He was the guy who received death threats, who got hit in the head by pitches seven times during his rookie year, and who repeatedly had racist comments yelled at him when he came up to bat, including a Philadelphia player who screamed, “Hey, you black nigger! Why don’t you go back where you came from?”
What I want to point out, though, is that Collins has taken an important step, and now it’s up to the National Basketball Association to take one as well.
Collins is a free agent. This spring he played out the final few weeks of the season with the Washington Wizards, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be on any team’s roster next year.
In fact, the New York Times is among the news outlets that, in their coverage of Collins telling the world that he’s gay, labeled him a “marginal” player. That term doesn’t have anything to do with his sexuality but everything to do with a few hard-core facts:
What all these statistics add up to is that Collins isn’t a star. He’s a 7-foot center, which certainly places him in an elite fraternity of American basketball players, but the various factors listed above will make him less than indispensable to the NBA teams when they put together their list of athletes who’ll be taking the court next season.
So here’s the unanswered question: Is there a Branch Rickey in today’s NBA?
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