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PADECKY: Jason Collins' coming out could open door for other athletes

Published: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 10:03 p.m.

What Jason Collins did Monday, will he encourage and empower others? Will he be the first in a long string of gay and lesbian athletes who will now announce their homosexuality, proud and public with it? Or will Collins be a meteor shooting across our sky, bright and entrancing, only to fade away, alone in his luminescence?

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In this Jan. 20, 2013 file photo, then-Boston Celtics center Jason Collins (98) guards Detroit Pistons center Greg Monroe, right, in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson, File)

Will Jason Collins matter? That's the short of it. From what we are experiencing in the days following his announcement — reaction is coming from major sports and media outlets — he does. But in an information age in which the news cycle is measured in minutes, if not seconds, how long will Collins and his courage carry the day?

“I think initially people will sit on the sidelines with a wait-and-see attitude,” said Evelyn Cheatham, a member of the Sonoma County Human Rights Commission. It's as if we are still wrapping our minds around his admission and all the possible scenarios resulting from it.

In some way or another, we all are like Julia (Stamps) Mallon, the All-American runner at Santa Rosa High School and Stanford. Stamps was asked to be a bridesmaid for Collins' wedding to Carolyn Moos in 2009, a wedding called off. Mallon, 34, was and remains close friends with Collins and Moos. They all were at Stanford together.

Mallon was Collins' guest to see him play in the NBA in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. After the game she would notice the wives and the girlfriends gathering, waiting for the players to emerge from the locker room. She never noticed a man waiting for Jason. She said progress will be measured when Collins' partner will be waiting as well.

“This story has so many angles to it,” Mallon said.

It is those angles that will largely determine the long-term impact of Collins and his message of tolerance and understanding.

One of those angles surprisingly is technology, the electronic medium that too often rushes to judgment, spreading false information and shallow, knee-jerk reactions.

Within hours Collins was receiving praise and encouragement nationwide.

It wasn't just President Obama devoting time to speak publicly.

It was Indians veteran Jason Giambi, A's manager Bob Melvin and Yankees manager Joe Girardi, all offering hosannas through social media. It was the Boston Red Sox extending an open invitation for Collins to throw out first pitch at Fenway whenever he felt like it.

“The show of support,” said Mark Fabionar, the administrator for SSU's diversity program, “has been overwhelming. Yes, we should praise technology for what it's done in this case.”

Technology has, at least for now, muted a backlash. But sports has never operated in a vacuum.

Teams go out of their way to incite loyalty, passion and expression from their followers. In theory that works. In practice, especially if there are beers involved, the theory is ignored.

“There is a segment of fans who felt compelled to use homophobic slurs to fans of other teams,” said Dr. Don Romesburg, a Sonoma State assistant professor and department chair of Women and Gender Studies. “They will also do the same thing to players of the opposing teams.”

It is Romesburg's hope, as it is Fabionar's, that Jason Collins has created a moment of pause for a fan ready to utter a degrading remark. A pause to remember.

The Lakers' Kobe Bryant has no problem with gay basketball players. Magic Johnson openly supports his gay 20-year old son.

The Mets' David Wright said, “If you can play the game, welcome. That's all that matters to me.”

Ugly is unbecoming and what will it take for an ugly fan to learn to control his tongue? For Collins' announcement to modify fan behavior? To create a civil discourse in the stands?

“Good luck with that one,” Fabionar said. “But right now we are experiencing a moment of pause.”

To imagine this is a watershed moment, something akin to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, to think sports will thankfully never be the same, Fabionar is not ready to go there yet.

“I think it's too early to call this a tipping point,” he said.

It's too early because it's May, not October.

The 2013-14 season is five months away. Travel five months through American sports and the significance of April 29 may be forgotten, overrun by events large and small.

After all, there is no posted speed limit on the informational superhighway. It never slows down. At that speed it is good at leaving things behind. Like courage and bravery. It also needs to be fueled by passion.

How will that passion play out in October when Collins takes the court (if he finds a team)?

“For a black guy to come out in a major sport,” Cheatham said, “it's what has endeared me to his story. I'm in awe of him. But I grew up in the Civil Rights Era. So when President Obama was elected, I was terrified. I feel a little of that terror now for Jason.”

So we wait.

We hope logic carries the day, logic so overpowering, so undeniable, it diffuses anger.

No one should ever feel uncomfortable representing tolerance.

“I'm lucky to call Jason my friend,” Mallon said.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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