Jason Collins played an NBA game the other night and made history. The first openly-homosexual player in a major team sport.
Someone asked me what I thought, and I said, does he get back on defense? That’s what was foremost in my mind, after that Thunder-Clipper debacle the other day.
Michael Sam came out of the closet, too, before taking part in the NFL Combine, where he didn’t test all that well. The Missouri pass rusher, the reigning SEC defensive player of the year, might not get drafted, and it won’t be for social reasons. It will be because scouts don’t believe he can get to the quarterback enough.
But I salute the courage of Collins and Sam. What they did wasn’t easy to do. I don’t know how much public or locker-room ridicule they might face.
The pros aren’t college. In Collins’ case, for example, he’s not going to be subjected to nearly as much verbal use in NBA coliseums as he would have been in college gyms. Student groups – led by Sam’s own Missouri, which has had the ridiculous Antlers for decades – can be quite vicious. So can older fans.
You don’t get quite the same vile reception in the NBA as you do in college. There’s the occasional superfan in the NBA who takes upon himself to be king of the jerks, but those guys you can pick out. You can look them in the eye, and whether they shut up or not, they know that you know who they are, and there’s an unspoken agreement that said superfan could be squashed like a bug at the ballplayer’s discretion.
Crowds are different. Mobs chanting in unison are much more sinister, because that’s not a breakdown of an individual spirit, that’s a breakdown of society. And when society breaks down, we’re all in trouble.
The NFL is a little different, in that its fans can be coo-coo. Oakland. Buffalo, I’m told. Cleveland, back in the day when it had an NFL franchise to care about.
College football crowds can be rough, too, but football is different. The fans are farther away. They aren’t as accessible to the field of play. The players are padded up for car wrecks. In basketball, players are physically and emotionally vulnerable. Not so in football.
So Michael Sam probably will hear some things but should be able to tone it out rather easily.
The locker room? Sam’s coming along at the perfect time. Collins has paved the way, so Sam’s not an all-sports pioneer, just an NFL pioneer. And the Richie Incognito scandal in Miami has every NFL locker room on notice. Quit playing Animal House. Quit acting like fools. Be professional.
There still are knuckleheads everywhere. But even if you don’t condone Sam’s lifestyle, condemnation is not the proper reaction. Even if you don’t understand it, mockery is not the proper response.
The truth is, we would all be appalled if we knew the details of most NBA and NFL sexual activities. In case some have forgotten, heterosexuality does not equate to purity.
Which is as good a time as any to talk about Tim Tebow. Here’s what I don’t understand.
Why isn’t Tebow on an NFL roster? I don’t advocate handing him a franchise. He’s not one of the 32, or 50, best quarterbacks in the world. But top 100? There’s no chance Tebow is not.
He’s unorthodox. His passing form doesn’t pass the eye test. He’s inaccurate.
But Tebow has a certain je ne sais quoi. He gets some things done. He’s 9-7 as an NFL starting quarterback and he beat the Steelers in the 2011 playoffs.
And now he can’t find a job.
The Cowboys late last season were quarterback desperate. Tony Romo was out with a back injury, and Dallas had nothing behind Kyle Orton.
So Dallas signed Jon Kitna for the season finale against the Eagles. Let me repeat. Dallas signed 41-year-old Jon Kitna, who last played in the NFL in 2011 and who had been coaching high school in his native Washington state.
Kitna is a grizzled old pro who in a pinch would learn the plays and not make dumb decisions. If Dallas had been forced to go with Kitna, the Cowboys would not have lost 48-10. Guaranteed. They would have lost 31-10. Guaranteed.
The Cowboys would rather have lost with dignity than risk the mockery of signing Tebow. Tebow might have gotten the Cowboys beat 48-10. Likely would have. But Dallas would have had a better chance of beating Philly with Tebow than beating Philly with Jon Kitna.
So why has Tebow been ostracized? Same reason we figured homosexuals were staying in the closet. Fear. Fear of the media circus. Fear of the chemistry disruption in the locker room.
The NFL is full of born-again Christians. But for some reason, Tebow has become the lightning rod. Most of that is his own doing. He wears his Christianity on his sleeve, not necessarily in a humble-Christ way, but in a self-promotional way that turns off many people.
There was a time in the 2011 season, during Denver’s amazing run to the playoffs, that Tebow was the single-most popular player in the NFL. More popular than Tom Brady. More popular than Adrian Peterson. More popular than Peyton Manning.
It was crazy. Tebow resonated with people, both good and bad. Pro and con. In the same way that Michael Sam and Jason Collins is a hero to many and a villain to some, Tebow polarized.
But my question is this. If a franchise was willing to accept the social spotlight and locker-room adjustments that came with signing Jason Collins, and the Netropolitans were, and if an NFL franchise is willing to accept the social spotlight and locked-room adjustments that will come with drafting or signing Michael Sam, why has no team grabbed Tim Tebow when it has a quarterback emergency?
The answer is clear. Not all spotlights, not all adjustments, are created equal. Tim Tebow is kept out of quarterbacking in the NFL by a shaky arm and reverse discrimination.