The outpouring of support for NBA player Jason Collins after he declared he was gay shows much has changed since Navratilova’s coming out

This week was a good week for sport because it stood up for a man seven feet tall.

Years ago it didn’t. Martina Navratilova is a dignified, intelligent, articulate, revolutionary athlete. If I had to pick a role model for my daughter, she’d be high on the list. But in the early 1980s, when she was just about to hit her thrillingly competitive stride, Navratilova said she was gay. As she told this writer once in Melbourne, it cost her then. In sponsors and in reputation.

Years later, we’re all growing up. Jason Collins, the seven-foot tall NBA basketballer, never quite a star and towards the end of his career, admitted he was gay this week and was drowned in support. Among America’s pre-eminent team sports, he is the first openly gay player. Navratilova beamed in response and tweeted: “It’s not easy to come out when one is still active — shouldn’t be an issue, but it is. That’s why so many don’t do it till after.” The world has come a long way on this subject and sport is now slowly catching up.

Sport, so suffocated by breathless platitudes, will tell you it is about family. Fans are part of the clan, teammates are kin. Yet sport is also littered with homophobic spectators, racist crowds, ugly tribalism and excessive jingoism. For all our love of any game, sport can be uniquely divisive.

But this week was different. Tennis player Andy Roddick cheered Collins, so did golfer Michelle Wie. Baseball pitchers spoke out and the Red Sox invited him to throw out a first pitch. Basketball teammates stood by Collins and rivals were in his corner. Sport was on his side and it was something.

Stereotyping, indignities

This week was a good week for sport because it stood for something real. We talk of building character and fair play in sport. We insist the sweaty arena represents a true meritocracy. We argue that on the field we don’t discriminate on the basis of colour, race, religion but only on the basis of talent. It’s not untrue, but it’s hardly a struggle unfinished.

Stereotyping is like branding that doesn’t easily fade. I read somewhere that Donald Walker, in his 1837 book Exercises for Ladies, wrote that horseback riding would deform their lower bodies and turn their voices coarse from shouting. In January 2013, caricature endures. Jo Wilfried-Tsonga, a rather cheerful fellow whose mind had momentarily seized, said top sportswomen didn’t dominate like men because “they are more unstable emotionally than us.” He wasn’t finished: “It’s just about hormones and all this stuff. We don’t have all these bad things, so we are physically in a good shape every time, and you are not. That’s it.” So still women athletes fight this nonsense, still they receive paltry coverage in newspapers, still they have to defend equal prize money in tennis.

Sport has never been as equal as we think. Black athletes suffered routine indignities like boxer Joe Louis being instructed by his handlers never to have his photograph taken with a white woman. In a much reported scene from a new film, 42, on Jackie Robinson who broke baseball’s colour barrier in 1947, a rival coach stands and hurls the vilest, most savage epithets at him. Robinson plays on. So do black athletes who hear monkey hoots these days on football fields.

That was a fight for self-expression and dignity. So is this. And there’s something tragic about grown-up gay athletes, strong and fast and daring, being plain scared — of our judgement, of sneering sponsors, of careers going off track, of jeering teammates. It’s not just about skill, you see, but maintaining the facade of the super jock. In February, during an NFL scouting combine, a college player was reportedly asked by one team: “Do you like girls?” As if it was mandatory for selection. It is why it’s easier in individual sports to out yourself for you are still your own master. It is why it has taken 67 years of the NBA before an active player can admit to his sexuality.

This week was a good week for sport because Collins’s act shows character. Rising after a muscular tackle and taking a left hook to the kidney is toughness. But deciding to be free, to be yourself, to speak out and travel into the spotlight and know that fundamentalists will abhor you and that your life and character will be stripped bare in every corner of this globe... this is toughness, too. Collins is not alone in dismantling barriers. Diver Greg Louganis, rugby player Gareth Thomas, footballer Robbie Rogers, boxer Orlando Cruz have all come out as gay male athletes. Every one is part of a necklace of dignified voices who together are telling us a story about equality and acceptance which we need to listen to.

Progress is told by the truth that we’re not so surprised any more by Collin’s admission. Certainly not shocked. We even shrug and say it’s about basketball, dude, and not sexuality. But it’s still a big deal. Because if it wasn’t, every other gay athlete in the NFL, in the EPL, in cricket, in ice hockey, in boxing, in tennis, would have stepped forward. And they haven’t yet. It’s still hard, it’s still a lifestyle we judge and sport as a truly diverse activity is not quite there.

But that’s next week. This week was just a good week for sport.

(Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.)

More In: Comment | Opinion