Sports, Still as Stupid as Ever

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Why can’t Jason Collins find an NBA job? (sfgate.com)
Deadspin raises the blacklisting question about Chris Kluwe (blogs.citypages.com)

I won’t deny feeling quite a bit of pleasure earlier this year when NBA player Jason Collins, shortly after his season was over, came out in Sports Illustrated as a homosexual. Coming on the heels of the military finally allowing non-heterosexuals to serve openly (and the colossal non-story integration was, with only two chaplains resigning in protest instead of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers predicted by the right-wing media), it felt like the deeply-ingrained homophobic culture of American men’s sports (out lesbians have been playing in the WNBA since its inception) was finally going to fall away as well, remnants of a dark time in our country’s history when the idea that anyone who broke the bounds of heteronormality in even the slightest way must therefore be not just a sexual deviant, but a sexual predator as well, and so a gay male athlete in a locker room, or a gay male soldier in the barracks, wouldn’t be able to stop himself from sexually assaulting his teammates or fellow soldiers. When NBA officials and other professional athletes openly supported Collins after his announcement, it seemed like at least a few more vestiges of this country’s homophobic past had fallen away, and now the only question was what team Collins would play for when the next NBA season came up. (I hoped it would be my Detroit Pistons, of course.)

The answer, as that season rapidly approaches, appears to be none at all. Collins is still without a job, and it doesn’t appear that he will find one in the NBA. If Collins ends up not finding another team to play with, and then retiring, can it be said that the NBA really broke the “gay barrier” if Collins never gets the opportunity to play a single second after coming out?

Collins is just one case, though, and he is a relatively old player who, from what I can tell (I’m hardly a basketball fan), was never more than a supporting player even in his prime. That’s not the case for NFL punter Chris Kluwe, though, who not only supports same-sex marriage, but rushed to the defence when a right-wing politician in Maryland attacked a Baltimore Ravens player who also supported same-sex marriage, penning a letter/article called “They Won’t Magically Turn You Into A Lustful Cockmonster” that garnered Kluwe nationwide attention for the hard-hitting tone he took. (I love using that article in class to show how argument works; the title alone grabs my students’ attention right away, and Kluwe’s brilliant and appropriate use of profanity keeps them hooked for the whole exercise.) Kluwe had a good, albeit not great, season with the Minnesota Vikings last year, but then got cut by the team this past off-season, cut again by the Oakland Raiders a few weeks ago, and is still without a job in the NFL.

It’s hard to look at both of these cases and not feel discouraged. Although the climate for non-heterosexual athletes is better than it was just a few years ago — the NHL is to be highly commended for their “You Can Play” programme in this regard — the examples of Jason Collins and Chris Kluwe show that for all the progress that has been made in some areas, the idea of an openly gay male athlete (or even a vocal supporter of gay rights like Kluwe) being able to compete at the highest level of any of the major American sports still seems like a pipe dream. It’s hard to believe that gay male athletes in high school and college right now aren’t looking at Collins and Kluwe, and wondering if there’s any point to pursuing their dreams of playing professional sports.

What is even more infuriating about this, though, is how the media has been covering what’s happened to Collins and Kluwe. There are stories out there about both of them, and the homophobia that still persists in American male sports leagues, but they’re few and far between. On the other hand, an NFL quarterback who only completed six passes all of last season, and was also cut  before this most recent season began, is currently getting so much media attention that ESPN will probably launch yet another channel later this year, dedicated to all the stories about him. Yes, now that he’s no longer with the Jets and I don’t have to worry about ticking off Don Becker, it’s finally time for me to talk about Tim Tebow.

One of sports’ most endearing qualities to me is its natural ability to craft stories as good as any novelist could come up with. Kirk Gibson became my favourite athlete in 1984 when he hit two monster home runs (here’s the “Oh My” second homer)  in the game that clinched that year’s World Series for the Detroit Tigers, the first time one of “my teams” won a world title. You can imagine how I felt four years later, then, when my favourite player was the one to come to the plate again in the World Series, against the best relief pitcher in baseball, and on two bad legs no less, and hit the most storybook home run in baseball history, possibly the most storybook moment in all of sports. Sometimes it feels like I still haven’t come down from the high of that moment.

I can understand, then, how Tebow’s supporters felt when he turned in some storybook performances early in his NFL career with the Denver Broncos. Unfortunately, many of Tebow’s supporters became hooked on his outspoken Christianity — really outspoken Christianity — and it was as if it was not the arm of Tim Tebow, but the arm of Jesus Christ reincarnate, that threw all those game-winning touchdowns. Religion and sports have always been closely linked in America, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but Tebow’s fanbase soon distinguished itself by making such a huge deal of his Christianity that Tebow may as well have been Jesus Christ for all that he became a symbol of Christianity to this part of his fanbase.

It is aggravating enough that there are so many radical religious right-wing people in this country who think that just because they don’t get their way on every issue all the time, that therefore Christians are the most persecuted people in America. The Tebow phenomenon basically took all the lunacy and red-faced outrage of that movement, and injected a great big dollop of it into sports. When Tebow got exposed as a relatively one-dimensional quarterback who was easy to play against when you figured how to avoid his strengths and play to his weaknesses, his fans couldn’t accept that. His diminished playing time with the New York Jets, and getting cut from both the Jets and New England Patriots, weren’t the byproducts of an overhyped quarterback being exposed; they were a vast left-wing secular conspiracy designed to attack Christians everywhere. After all, those miraculous touchdown passes he threw for the Broncos proved he was Football Jesus, so every owner who traded or cut him must be a modern-day Judas Iscariot or Pontius Pilate.

(If there is one good thing to come out of the whole Tebow thing, it’s the creation of a new sexual position, the “Teblow,” where one person gets down on one knee in front of another person, and … well, I’m sure you can fill in the rest, and if you can’t, remember: Google Image Search is your friend.)

It’s as though these fans have tied Tebow and his religion so closely together that if Tebow isn’t the next Joe Montana or Joe Namath — or even Joe Flacco — that Tebow’s failures are somehow “proof” that he and his fans’ religious convictions have been proven untrue. That is not the case at all. Christianity, and Tim Tebow’s interpretation of Christian doctrine, are no less valid than they were when he threw those game-winning touchdowns. If Tebow proves the naysayers wrong and wins a Super Bowl, that Super Bowl victory doesn’t make his religious beliefs any more valid, either. Religion is religion, and politics is politics, and even though there’s always been a link between the two, that link does not extend to that level of causation.

Despite the fact that Tebow appears to have washed out of the NFL, though — remember, he completed six passes all of last season — he continues to get as much press as any superstar currently playing. A rally earlier this week to get the Jacksonville Jaguars to give him a tryout, despite only attracting twelve fans, was still a national news story. (This is reminiscent of those conservative “rallies” outside David Letterman’s studios after he told a joke about the Palin family that Sarah Palin found offencive, which only attracted about twenty people, but still somehow forced Letterman into making two on-air apologies.) Even on his new ESPN2 show, Keith Olbermann has devoted multiple segments to Tebow, while mentioning Jason Collins only in passing, and not mentioning Kluwe, or issues of homophobia in sports, at all.

There are certainly more important things to be discussing than sports — I’m only writing this because I’m too angry about my next blog subject right now to discuss it rationally — but it does go to show how those with the power, and the money, in sports or media or what have you, can craft the stories that influence us as a culture. Tim Tebow is still the cause celebre of a large part of this country, while Jason Collins and Chris Kluwe are supposed to just fade away. Things like this make me wonder if I shouldn’t just give up on sports altogether.

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