Ever since he became the first openly gay active athlete in one of the four major North American professional sports, NBA centre Jason Collins has been widely praised and supported. However, at 34 years of age, his career seems to be nearing its end.
Despite word from his brother Jarron—a former NBA big man himself—that Collins is in the best shape of his life, there appears to be little interest from any NBA teams to sign the journeyman centre. It’s worth asking, however, whether Collins should receive another shot.
The reason that Jason Collins remains unsigned is due to performance and money issues, not his sexual orientation. Some, such as Sports Illustrated author Jeff Pearlman, have suggested that the NBA is letting a golden opportunity for progress slip away by leaving Collins unsigned. However, if Collins is signed on the basis of his sexual orientation, it is not progress, but rather tokenism.
Upon his coming out, some compared Collins to Jackie Robinson. Robinson was the first African American to play in the MLB, ending racial segregation in the sport, while showing courage and poise in the face of blatant racism. However, a key difference exists between the two. Robinson was a Rookie-of-the-Year, MVP, and six-time all-star. He is arguably a hall-of-famer based on his stats alone. He was not a token, a gimmick, or a utility player, like Collins is; Robinson was a top-tier baseball player.
Collins is a role player and has been for almost the entirety of his 12-year career. He has never been impressive statistically speaking, and has not played significant minutes in a number of years. At his best, Collins was sometimes referred to as the “Dwight Howard Stopper,” using his size and strength as a defensive menace against one of the league’s most dominating centres.
At this point in his career, Collins likely only makes sense for a team with a shortage of big men. A contender dealing with injuries at that position could take a flier on him, but he’d likely remain a minute-eater who is unable to contribute offensively.
Even if Collins could provide some value, a lot of teams are hesitant because of the costs of signing such a player. As a veteran player, Collins’ minimum salary is higher than a player with less experience. About half the teams in the league are also above the salary cap, meaning that they would need to pay a luxury tax—on top of the salary—if they were to sign Collins.
There are also those who believe that the lack of interest shown by NBA teams is due to the media attention he would bring. This would certainly be a factor at first, but the frenzy would likely die down as the season moved along.
Others believe that concerns about locker room dynamics have caused teams to shy away from Collins. However, this viewpoint is short-sighted. The NBA is a very progressive league. Upon his announcement, Collins was congratulated and praised for his courage by many big names stars in the league, including, but not limited to, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Jason Kidd, and Kevin Durant. If a player were to speak out against Collins, he would likely be ostracized, branded as a homophobe, and reprimanded by the league office.
Signing Collins because he is gay would be exactly the kind of differential treatment that has no place in sport. If he is signed, I hope that it’s because he provides real value, and not just for his personal and incredibly courageous decision.