Hurrah for Jason Collins, But the NBA Was Already Pretty Gay

Feb 24, 2014

By Steve Lipofsky Basketballphoto.com, via Wikimedia Commons

I'm as excited as anybody else about Jason Collins, but can the NBA really be having its Big Gay Moment when one of its stars from the past frequented gay bars, dyed his hair green and --during his playing days -- wore feather boas and a wedding dress?

I speak of The Worm, Dennis Rodman who, as a player, flaunted an ambiguous sexuality -- I think cross-dressing and dating Madonna qualifies -- and sometimes used that to mess with the heads of homophobic players he was guarding.  In a 2011 interview, Rodman was still gleefully playing up all of his contradictions:

"Back then it was like, 'Oh, my God, he's gay.' If I told people I was gay, they would say, 'Oh, we knew' -- [laughs] -- 'we was just waiting for you to come out!'"

But even His Royal Wormness was not the beginning. Mike Pesca and I discussed this on the show today. I contended that the NBA began its conversation about player sexual orientation in the early 1990s wen Magic Johnson revealed himself to be HIV positive. It was always important to Magic that everyone understand and believe he got the disease from straight sex -- so important that he and Isiah Thomas had a falling out when Magic accused his former friend of spreading LGBT rumors.  (That these were the two players who used to exchange pre-game kisses made the whole thing even odder.) Bottom line: this was never exactly about an openly gay player, but it was the beginning of a conversation about sexuality that no other pro league was having in quite the same way.

More recent times have seen Kobe Bryant angrily call a ref a "faggot" and subsequently condemn his own ignorance while pleading with others not to use that at word. And a Denver player made a video about his two moms. Charles Barkley has said that everybody ought to calm down about the subject and that every professional athlete, over the course of a career, has had gay teammates whether he knew about them or not

Of course, only in pro sports would Sir Charles and The Worm be the guys helping you do reality checks about sexual pluralism ...or anything. But -- far more than the NFL or MLB -- the NBA has stayed closer to the pace of modern sexual sensibilities. That's one reason Collins is sort of a non-story. I know considerably less about the NHL. Would it matter if all hockey players were gay?