The Brooklyn Nets have signed veteran basketball player Jason Collins, which makes him the first openly gay man to play in the National Basketball Association or in any of America’s “Big Four” professional sports leagues. Collins revealed his homosexuality nearly a year ago, but was without a team at the time, and is just now finding NBA work again. The move by the Nets comes shortly after college football player Michael Sam announced his homosexuality, which will make him the first openly gay man to enter the National Football League. But while the timing of the two stories gives momentum to the civil rights and workplace rights which homosexuals in the United States have long been seeking, the Nets don’t appear to be timing this move in an attempt to make a social statement. Rather, it’s simply that time of year in the NBA where moves like this happen.
NBA teams begin making moves at the bottom of their regular season roster shortly after the league’s All-Star break because players must be added by March 1st in order to be eligible for that team’s playoff roster. Star players are rarely available as free agents in the middle of a season, but journeymen are often picked up to fill niche roles. For instance Glen Davis was just signed by the Los Angeles Clippers, who had been looking to add interior depth for their upcoming playoff. The Nets were widely rumored to be interested in Davis as well, and having failed to lure him to Brooklyn, appear to have targeted Jason Collins as their second choice. That suggests that the move to add the homosexual Collins, rather than being motivated by civil rights or equality, is instead merely based on pragmatism and roster depth.
That’s in sharp contrast to the circumstances behind Michael Sam’s ascent to the NFL. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, and while the defensive end is unlikely to be a first round pick, he’s nearly a lock to make the roster of whichever team drafts him in the middle rounds. His decision to come out as gay prior to the draft appears to have been aimed at ensuring that whichever team selects him does so with its eyes open, and he’ll play his entire pro football career out of the closet. Collins played for six different NBA teams (including the Nets back when they were still based in New Jersey) while hiding his homosexuality until last April.
At the least it can be argued that Collins’ homosexuality hasn’t kept him from finding work. He’d been out of the NBA for the past ten months because he’s thirty-five years old and has only ever had workmanlike value as a bruiser under the basket as opposed to a well rounded skill base. But that’s precisely what the Nets need right now, particularly as they attempt to keep the wear and tear off aging stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce ahead of the playoffs while also trying to ensure that they actually make the playoffs; as of today Brooklyn is battling for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
But the milestone of social progress which Collins will make this week, when he takes the court as the first openly gay man to play in an NBA game, could end up being short lived. Veteran journeymen are typically signed to a ten day contract when added during the season, and are expected to contribute on the court within that time or face being quickly out of work again. Ten day contracts can ultimately turn into multimillion dollar long term deals, as was the case with Chris “Birdman” Andersen last year, also thirty-five years of age, in Miami last year. But Collins will have to produce quickly in Brooklyn in order to ensure that his historic Nets debut ends up being a season long gig.