When former NBA player Jason Collins considers the backlash from speaking out on social issues, he says he’s reminded of a quote from the 2011 sports drama Moneyball: “The first guy through the wall ... he always gets bloody, always.”
Collins, who became the league’s first openly gay active player when he came out in 2013, is a big advocate of professional athletes and organizations speaking out on civil rights issues, like San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been doing by kneeling during the National Anthem, and like the NBA did by pulling the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte.
“As a professional athlete, you have a unique opportunity to speak out, speak for different social issues and to bring attention to some of the plights of our society,” Collins said.
Collins works for the league now as an NBA Cares ambassador, and he was in Charlotte Tuesday talking politics with students at Johnson C. Smith University. Collins played center in the NBA for 13 seasons, most recently for the Brooklyn Nets. He met Chelsea Clinton at Stanford and now campaigns for her mother, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
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Collins lauded the NBA’s decision to pull the All-Star Game from Charlotte over opposition to North Carolina’s law limiting legal protections for the LGBT community, House Bill 2, which Collins described as homophobic.
“When it comes to HB2, I’m proud to see the sports community step forward and try to influence social change, to use that platform – whether it’s the NBA, the NCAA or the ACC,” Collins he said of the groups that have all pulled events from North Carolina because of HB2.
He pointed to leadership within the NBA – specifically, commissioner Adam Silver – as handling the controversial issue “the right way.”
Many consider the NBA progressive in its willingness to take a stand on social issues. The NBA, for example, was the first major sports organization to have a float in New York’s pride parade in June. NBA stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul opened the ESPY Awards show in July with Black Lives Matter speeches.
When former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made racist comments about former L.A. Lakers standout Magic Johnson, the league forced him to sell in 2014.
“I’m very proud of the environment that the NBA is creating where if you do choose to step forward then you will be supported by the league,” Collins said, also noting there have been “missteps” along the way, like when the Minnesota Lynx, the WNBA team, was initially fined for wearing Black Lives Matter shirts during warmups.
Collins said when he came out as gay in 2013, Vice President Joe Biden praised his decision as not only good for the LGBT community, but also as a conversation starter for heterosexual sports fans.
“When you put in the context of sports, it’s, ‘Hey, did you see that football player?’ ‘Hey did you see that basketball player? It’s easier for them to start the conversation. That’s the only way things are gonna change, by having those conversations.”
Supporters of HB2, like N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, cite bathroom safety and have slammed the NBA for trying to assert its “moral authority.” National Anthem gestures calling attention to systemic racism have been criticized as anti-patriotic and disrespectful.
The demand that athletes and sports organizations “stick to sports,” Collins said, is insulting.
“I’m a citizen just as much as any other person. I pay my taxes, I do my civic duty. How dare you tell me basically to stay in my lane?”