The news Monday that Jason Collins had become the first active player in any of the four major U.S. team sports to reveal himself as gay itself provided a new demonstration of how idiosyncratically different media cover a story.
Even ESPN and ESPN.com seemed to be at odds over how to treat the NBA center’s news, which came two weeks after the 66th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first major-league game, while ESPN analyst Chris Broussard created his own controversy with comments on live TV comparing homosexuality to “walking in open rebellion to God” and that players like Collins were “living in unrepentant sin.”
Anchors for ESPN, which is a broadcast partner of the NBA, had earlier called the news “courageous” and introduced a piece on Collins by saying his announcement represented “a landmark day in sports, and to some extent, in our society.” The news led morning editions of “SportsCenter,” even topping Tim Tebow leaving the New York Jets (and causing some on social media to thank Collins simply for that achievement).
In contrast, ESPN.com — despite a history of attention by the parent network to the question of when the first pro athlete in a major team sport might come out — initially downplayed the story online, giving it no special treatment in the website’s main display section and making it the No. 2 story on its headline stack, behind the news of the Jets releasing Tebow, the most famous reserve quarterback in the NFL.
Sports Illustrated, which had the exclusive — including the main story co-authored by Collins, a first-person piece from his twin brother and a number of sidebars — covered the news as a true watershed moment on its website. FoxSports.com also made it the site’s top story.
On conventional news sites, coverage varied widely as well, arguably for socio-political reasons. NBCNews.com, the online presence of MSNBC, made Collins its lead story Monday (as did CNN, which like Sports Illustrated is owned by Time Warner). FoxNews.com, however, did not put the story high enough to be seen on first view when its home page loaded, instead making it the No. 8 story on a headline stack lower on the page.
On the air, cable news sites were diverted by attention to other stories such as continued coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and developments in the Obama cabinet.
Regardless, despite averaging 3.6 points per game in his 12-year NBA career, Collins became the most sought-after interview in sports. Thanks to its sibling relationship with SI, CNN emerged as an early favorite to land it, but the first interview went to George Stephanopoulos for “Good Morning America” on Tuesday.
During its coverage, ESPN aired tweets from several NBA stars — including the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash — expressing support for Collins, a Los Angeles native. Although ESPN basketball analyst Chris Broussard said he had encountered “a mixed bag of reactions,” he anticipated little public criticism of Collins, citing a “politically correct climate.”
Broussard said some players might be “uncomfortable” about having a gay teammate, then stressed Collins was near the end of his career and, as a free agent, might not be signed next year. However, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, for example, has gone on record with his support for gay athletes.
As the conversation went on, ESPN found itself debating the theological aspects of homosexuality, clearly not the network’s sweet spot, with Broussard effectively making himself part of the story in his comments.
“If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, (but) adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals … I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God,” Broussard said on a special edition of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”
Collins’ milestone was comparable to Ellen DeGeneres’ becoming in 1997 the first active TV star to reveal her homosexuality, news that at the time set off a media furor. DeGeneres tweeted Monday to Collins that she was “overwhelmed by your bravery.”
Collins said in his SI story with Franz Lidz that he was prepared for negative reaction from others.
“As far as the reaction of fans, I don’t mind if they heckle me,” Collins wrote. “I’ve been booed before. There have been times when I’ve wanted to boo myself. But a lot of ill feelings can be cured by winning.
“I’m a veteran, and I’ve earned the right to be heard. I’ll lead by example and show that gay players are no different from straight ones. I’m not the loudest person in the room, but I’ll speak up when something isn’t right. And try to make everyone laugh.”
Famous athletes such as tennis players Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova have outed themselves in the past, as well as WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes in 2005, but the news that a U.S. male team athlete is doing so knocks down a major barrier for others.
“Jason has made a courageous decision,” said Arn Tellem, Collins’ agent, in a piece for SI. “Coming out publicly required immense bravery. All sorts of people are still rejected by their families, targeted by bigots and harassed by vigilantes just because they decide to tell the truth about their sexuality.”
Former center John Amaechi, closeted over his five NBA seasons, has said, ‘The fears of society are distilled into the small space of the locker room.’ “