In a span of less than 24 hours, two wonderful things happened in the world of sports, both of which bode very well for progressive values in American culture. First, there was the quiet early morning whisper that Tim Tebow had been released from the New York Jets. Our main concern seemed to be whether the device has been invented which could measure our collective apathy. Sports radio hosts were talking about it, but mostly they were talking about how they really didn’t want to talk about it. It was the biggest non-story of the week.
Then came the real story. Jason Collins came out of the closet. In case you’ve been living under a rock, by announcing that he is gay, Collins became the first openly gay male athlete in major U.S. sports history. (“Major sports” refers to the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL.) The outpouring of support has been tremendous. The dissenting voices have been mostly denounced. The internet trolls are trolling, and nobody is paying any attention to them.
While the Tebow and Collins stories may seem unrelated, I’d like to suggest that they are actually an exciting glimpse into the future of American culture. More importantly, I believe they prove that things have already changed more than we may think. Major sports in America are typically not on the front edge of progressive culture. Instead, they’re often steeped in good-ol-boy culture, Christianity, and privilege. Just recently, there was a scandal over an openly bigoted coach who was inexplicably not fired after being… well… a bigoted abuser. Action was only taken after the abuse was made public and sparked outrage. One of the largest college sports organizations in the country is the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. They’re not exactly gay-friendly. In fact, they were one of the largest recipients of money from the openly bigoted franchise, Chick-Fil-A.
At the team level, there are lots and lots of Christians in pro sports, and many teams are steeped in bigoted Christian culture. Coaches in major college programs lead prayer meetings. Some are openly proud of their religiously inspired bigotry, and don’t mind saying so. Players are getting thrown off teams for being gay. Individually, players are often rewarded for displays of their Christianity, even when it does espouse very regressive and bigoted views.
Enter Tim Tebow. After taking the sports world and popular culture by storm with his public prayer pose, known as “Tebowing,” he rode a string of improbable victories all the way to the Big Apple. While Tebow was in the spotlight, he used it to full advantage to push his religious agenda. From an anti-abortion ad in the Superbowl to a controversial appearance at a bigoted mega-church (which he wisely cancelled), Tebow’s religion was always on his sleeve, as well as his eye-black. He was a poster child for religion and sports culture. But after the glitter wore off, he foundered on the sideline of a dysfunctional program and sank into irrelevancy. After his ignominious departure from the Jets… nobody really cared.
It was fortuitous timing, really. Tebow’s Christianity can’t buy him a job in the NFL, and while he’s slipping quietly out the back door, America is rallying behind a guy who’s had an 11 year NBA career and has decided it’s time for gays to be accepted in major sports. It appears that once the rubber hits the road, sports fans want sports to be about sports. Because of Collins’ bravery and the resounding support he’s receiving from fans, commentators, and players, we will no longer live in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” sports culture. We will learn to embrace the truth that gay men play sports. We will recognize that they’ve been there all along, and nothing bad has happened. They’re just people. And if they can play well, we want to watch them. We really don’t care about the religious views of our athletes. We care about good sports. And good sports includes gay men.
So to Jason Collins, I say, “Thank you. Thank you so much for being the guy who did what needed to be done. Thank you for risking your career to make it okay for other gay men to be who they are and have a pro sports career. You deserve — and will have — a place next to Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Fritz Pollard, Robert Johnson, and Sara Christian, and all the other players who have dared to break lines of bigotry in professional sports. (Yes, I know Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first black baseball player, but he was the first in the modern era.)
To Tim Tebow, well, I really don’t have much to say. For all his accolades in college, his professional career looks to be a bust. His hyper-religiosity will be a footnote in sports almanacs, and his greatest achievement may be inclusion in a list with Jeff George, Quincy Carter, Cade McNown, and JaMarcus Russell. If you don’t know those names… well… I’m not going to tell you who they are because they’re not important. And that’s the point.