For years, even decades, talking heads have speculated over what grief lay ahead for the first openly gay athlete in one of the nation’s three largest sports. They imagined scenarios something akin to the rancor Jackie Robinson endured when he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Depictions of Robinson’s hellish experience sit fresh in many minds thanks to the recent release of the motion picture 42.
But when veteran NBA center Jason Collins published an essay in Sports Illustrated identifying himself as gay, the scenes of public reaction bore no resemblance to Robinson’s experience. Kobe Bryant, the league’s most established superstar, said he was proud of Collins. Other established stars, including Steve Nash, Kevin Durant, and Jason Kidd, offered similar signs of solidarity. Several teams and league commissioner David Stern issued official statements of support. And the broader media, for its part, provided a hero’s welcome: The New York Times declared Collins had “shattered one of the last great barriers in professional sports.” Even President Barack Obama personally telephoned Collins to say he was impressed by his courage.
Noticeably absent from this narrative of overcoming obstacles was an obstacle, a villain. Enter Chris Broussard (left, photo by Mark Halmas/SMI/Newscom). The longtime ESPN basketball analyst dared to break rank from the serenades of his colleagues. Asked point blank how he regarded Collins’ claim to be both a Christian and a sexually active gay man, Broussard responded on air: “I’m a Christian. I don’t agree with homosexuality. I think it’s a sin, as I think all sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman is. … If you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, the Bible says you know them by their fruits, it says that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals, whatever it may be, I think that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don’t think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian.”
Suddenly, the reaction many had anticipated would befall sport’s first openly gay athlete came crashing down on Broussard. He was labeled a “homophobe” and “bigot” and called much worse on message boards and blogs across the web. Some reports misconstrued his comments, accusing Broussard of bashing Collins. In fact, Broussard called Collins “a great guy.” Nevertheless, ESPN felt compelled to issue a statement expressing regret over the firestorm its analyst sparked. And Broussard himself offered the obligatory clarification that often follows controversial remarks: “I realize that some people disagree with my opinion and I accept and respect that. As has been the case in the past, my beliefs have not and will not impact my ability to report on the NBA. I believe Jason Collins displayed bravery with his announcement today and I have no objection to him or anyone else playing in the NBA.”
Should Broussard’s critics object to his continuing to play as a television analyst, termination is far from improbable. ESPN has released commentators before for statements deemed to defy mainstream views. Whatever may come, there is little doubt over whose actions required more bravery. Collins’ basketball career may soon be fading, but his announcement will ensure greater fame and even fortune ahead. Broussard, on the other hand, will endure mostly scorn for his comments. They could cost him much in his career. Neither man deserves comparisons to Jackie Robinson, but the strongest and rarest kind of courage is the sort that never makes the talk show circuit. Robinson knew that kind of courage and experienced the attending hatred.