By Coming Out, Has Jason Collins Changed The Game?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.
Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael with us from Cleveland. Columnist LZ Granderson is with us from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He writes for ESPN and CNN. From our bureau in New York, Pablo Torre. He's a senior writer with ESPN.com. Here in our Washington, D.C. studio is R. Clarke Cooper. He is a Republican strategist and LGBT activist and an Army Reserve captain.
Take it away, Jimi.
JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas.
R. CLARKE COOPER: Hey, hey.
IZRAEL: Welcome to the shop.
LZ GRANDERSON: What's up?
PABLO TORRE: What's going on, man?
IZRAEL: Can we get some caffeine in the room?
TORRE: Oh, we do.
IZRAEL: OK. What's really going on? All right. Well, let's jump right into this. LZ, it's nice to have you in, bro.
GRANDERSON: Hey, thanks very much for having me. You know, I got dreadlocks, so I'm not in the Barbershop very often.
MARTIN: Stay away from the clippers. Stay away. Back away from the clippers.
IZRAEL: I had dreadlocks for 20 years, man. I was in the Barbershop, like, every week, but we'll talk about that later. Let's get things started. Before this week, you probably never heard of NBA benchwarmer - I mean player - Jason Collins, but now...
IZRAEL: ...everybody knows him because he came out as gay. Michel, really?
MARTIN: Excuse me. I am a follower of the Wizards - the Wizards and the Celtics. I knew Jason Collins - thank you very much - and his twin brother. Thank you. But it is true that he was not the best known player in the league, but in Sports Illustrated in a piece that he penned with, I think, the help of a writer at Sports Illustrated, he wrote a piece where he came out as the first openly gay male athlete in a major American team sport and he talked with ABC News about why he - well, came out in the way that he did. Why it took so long. I'll just play a short clip from the interview.
JASON COLLINS: You don't want to be, you know, that distraction because, for me, it's always been about the team, but I think - well, I know that, in my personal life, I'm ready and I think the country is ready for supporting an openly gay basketball player.
IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. LZ, now, wait a second, man. Hold on. I could be wrong about this because I'm wrong every now and again.
IZRAEL: Why - OK. There's two things. Number one, why do we dismiss - why do we so easily dismiss Dennis Rodman coming out in 1995 as bisexual? He also came out in a cover story for SI, and the second question is, is the story of a benchwarmer's sex life or any player's sex life at all - is that really worth the cover of SI, seriously?
GRANDERSON: Well, you know, I'll talk about it in two points.
IZRAEL: Sure, please.
GRANDERSON: You know, first, before Dennis Rodman, there was Glenn Burke...
GRANDERSON: ...who people don't talk about very often who was actually out when he was playing back in the '70s. Right? And then, for some reason, you know, media didn't equate it or we didn't characterize it as an openly gay baseball player. I don't know. It was the '70s. I guess we didn't pay attention to a lot of things in that kind of detail.
IZRAEL: Well, we didn't have the Internet then, so...
GRANDERSON: They didn't have the internets and the interwebs back then.
GRANDERSON: And, as far as, you know, reducing one's sexual orientation to their sex life, I think you mischaracterize what sexual orientation really is. You know, it's not an act. It's a state of being and so to sort of say...
IZRAEL: But does it deserve to be on the cover of a sports magazine is what I'm asking.
COOPER: Well, that's goal. That's actually the goal.
MARTIN: Well, let him - Jimi, let him finish his point and then we'll hear from Clarke on this. That's why you asked him. Right?
MARTIN: You wanted to hear what he had to say. Right? OK.
IZRAEL: My bad. Go ahead, LZ.
GRANDERSON: Well, I mean, obviously, it deserves to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the simple fact that, for so long, we have been sort of waiting for this moment that we had forgotten about, as I said before, because we've had openly gay players in professional sports before, but for the, you know, point of this conversation, we've been waiting for this moment. And so now the moment is here. Is the fact that he is at the end of his career, you know, detracting from the fact that it's still historic? Absolutely not.
And, by the way, I give the dude more props because he had a great career in college and he also was the starting center for not one, but two teams fighting for an NBA championship. So he wasn't a complete scrub. He just happens to be on the tail end of his career now.
COOPER: Here's the bigger issue for beyond the basketball court is the closet and the closet has consequences and so the message that was sent by Jason Collins was for every young man or woman who is dealing and struggling with their identity and their orientation is that they can actually be themselves. And so being in the closet, one's mental well-being, the cohesion and integrity of a group - and that group can be not only a military unit, but a sports team or a workplace - those are all things that are very important here. And the trope that was rolled out before the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" was that unit cohesion would be adversely impacted by openly gay service members. That's the trope that's being rolled out again with Jason coming out. And it's very unfortunate that we're seeing a repeat. It's actually like almost like "Groundhog Day" if you're following this issue.
The good news is, is that it's completely fallacious. And we've seen now with several years with open service that, if anything, unit cohesion is actually better when you don't have service members who happen to be in the closet or hide their true identity. And so Jason coming out, at a very minimal level, is a good thing in moving a step forward and it especially sends a good message to young men and women.
MARTIN: Well, Pablo...
MARTIN: I guess I'm just questioning what Clarke, what you're talking about in terms of there being a repeat of "don't ask, don't tell". I remember in the wake of, when the discussion about repealing "don't ask, don't tell", all the stuff about, you know, former military - mainly former retired - long retired military - talking about this and a lot of people outside of the military talking about this. I don't remember a lot of pushback from people within the military. But in this instance I see very little backlash. I see very little. And I could be wrong about that. But Pablo, what about you?
TORRE: I mean there are, I mean on this end there's no backlash. But in terms of the public, in terms of the sports community, you'll, look - you'll have pockets of players who will tweet something and delete that tweet after they realize what a horrible nightmare was to even consider venturing that out into the marketplace of ideas in 2013 - which is a good thing, I think. But look, the reason why this is on the cover of Sports Illustrated is because they're clear - I mean there are two angles to this. One is the public interest. Clearly, everybody is talking about it. And it's not because, you know, SI is setting the agenda for the national conversations because there actually was - as LZ said - this waiting period. This very long waiting where everybody was building momentum to who is it going to be? We've been waiting so long. There are rumors about NFL players coming out, maybe four at a time, then one, which didn't happen, so the conversation is still going on in terms of who, how many people actually will we see coming out of the closet.
And in terms of, you know, sports, I guess Jimi, the thing that I found most uncomfortable about why is it on the cover of Sports Illustrated is the implication that sports must be limited to the box of sports and on the court stuff. And this - I mean this is such a hugely influential move for anybody in this country, but especially kids, young kids and young people who play sports. And look...
COOPER: Yeah. Exactly.
TORRE: ...the number went from zero in the public perception to one. Obviously the guys who came before should be mentioned, but it went from zero to one.
IZRAEL: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
MARTIN: Well, let me tell you what I liked about the piece, though. Let me tell you what I liked about the piece, was that he described what the closet was and what effect it had on his life. And I mean he did mention in passing - and I wish he said more about this - the fact that he was engaged at one point.
MARTIN: And it struck me that he seems to have known that he was gay at one point. And I have to wonder, you know, what it felt like for that young woman to understand that the person to whom she was engaged could never fully love her in the way that she deserved. And it - or...
COOPER: Well, there's some closure for her. She said that.
MARTIN: Yeah. And I think that must be, that must've been hard. But what I also found was just the effect that it had on his life. I mean he said that he was kind of sending messages to himself, like the fact that he chose number 98 in honor of Matthew Shepard...
MARTIN: ... which was the year that Matthew Shepard, the young man in Wyoming, was killed in horrific circumstances, you know, a story that I covered. And just seeing the place where that young man died, it's just - I can still see it. I mean it's that, so that he wore that number in honor, you know, of him, but that he felt that he couldn't really get close to his teammates because he couldn't really get - he couldn't really allow them to understand him for who he really was. And I think that for some - to share that with people, I think there are a lot of people who don't understand what that feels like. So I feel kudos to him for that.
COOPER: Jason was living a redacted life prior to coming out and that's what it feels like. You're living your life in pieces that cannot be fully shared. And we talk about the water cooler chat of the day.
COOPER: When you are, when one is living in the closet - and I did myself at one point - you can't be your full self. And it is a huge weight. So Jason must fell like a huge weight has been taken off his back.
MARTIN: Can I ask you...
GRANDERSON: And there's also this...
MARTIN: But let me ask Clarke though, how did you deal with that? I mean you've been in the Army for years, you know, and I know that you are in the Reserves...
IZRAEL: ...but you are also a very visible LGBT advocate for years, as the director of Log Cabin Republicans.
COOPER: But prior to that I almost got engaged...
MARTIN: So how did you do manage that?
COOPER: I mean well, you struggle through. You know, I prayed to God to make my orientation go away. Of course, when you finally have a reconciliation point, you say this is who I am. This is not going to change. And then you get square with that. But you have all these societal messages that are saying to you, this is not who you're supposed to be, this is wrong, you're abhorrent. And so all these negative messages that young men and women have to combat, it's an additional hurdle. I mean life's hard enough, right? But so to have adults, positive examples, say this is who you are, it does get better, God loves you, your family loves you no matter what, is a positive message. And it's very necessary, especially for young men and women who are struggling with their - who they may be.
MARTIN: All right we...
GRANDERSON: You know, I would just add...
MARTIN: Go ahead, LZ. Very briefly because we want to move on to another topic. Go ahead.
GRANDERSON: OK. I just want to also add that this is also a relief for heterosexual athletes as well.
COOPER: Sure. Yeah.
GRANDERSON: You forget that the closet don't just impose on people who happen to be LGBT, but also heterosexual people who don't necessarily fit within the box of what it means to be heterosexual. And so Jason may avoided wearing the color pink on a shirt or a pair of shorts because he didn't want people to call him gay or whatever, but also straight guys who may like the color pink avoided pink because they did not want to be called gay or whatever.
COOPER: Yeah. Yeah.
GRANDERSON: So this, you know, revealing of sexual orientation isn't just a relief for the closeted person but also for everyone, and it's just good as a whole.
MARTIN: Actually, I'm going to disagree with you about that. I think actually it goes the other way with that because I think that now then that there's going to be this whole sorting out period where people are going to have a need to differentiate themselves without - they don't want to be mean about it but they also kind of want to assert their own identity. And I - my small prediction is that it's going to actually be a little harder before it gets a little bit easier. That's just my take on that.
COOPER: It does get better, though. I will say that.
MARTIN: OK. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop, with writer Jimi Izrael, sports columnist LZ Granderson, Republican strategist R. Clarke Cooper, sportswriter Pablo Torre. Back to you, Jimi.
IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK. Let's keep it popping - as in soda pop. Has any...
IZRAEL: Has any - I know, right?
COOPER: Oh, God.
IZRAEL: Has anybody...
GRANDERSON: Soda pop.
IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah. That's not bad. That's not bad. OK. Come on.
GRANDERSON: All right.
IZRAEL: Has anybody seen the new Mountain Dew ads on the Internet? The spots were made by hip-hop artist Tyler the Creator. And they were barely, barely out before the company told them. Michel, we got some sound, yes?
MARTIN: We do. It's a series of ads. We can only play a little bit of one of them. But the story line is that they featured a goat who is apparently drinking too much Mountain Dew and then the chorus is this...
IZRAEL: As they are want to do.
MARTIN: As they are want to do. No, there really is a goat. I mean it's an actual goat and then he assaults a waitress. And later the goat appears in a police lineup and the lineup is all black men who are all thugged out. And here's a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right, ma'am, we've got 'em all lined up. Nail this little sucker. C'mon, which one is he? Point to 'em.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't think I can do this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You better not snitch on a player.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He's wearing the do-rag.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Snitches get stitches. Fool.
MARTIN: So the goat is talking here.
MARTIN: And I'll just mention that the suspects are all black. The victim - the victim is black - I'm sorry, the victim is white. The detective is white. All the other people are white and all the suspects are black. And I'll just mention that Professor Boyce Watkins of yourblackworld.com called the ad, quote, "arguably the most racist commercial in history." Tyler the Creator is pushing back, though. He says look, the black men in the lineup are all friends of his who happened to stop by the studio that day. And that, you know, he said it was funny. So, Jimi, I think you think it was funny. Mm-hmm.
IZRAEL: Thank you. Thanks for that, Michel. You know, I love Dr. Boyce Watkins. Boyce Money is my dude, but he has just proven to everybody that he is an economist who obviously does not own a television and maybe have never even seen a television. This clearly is not the most racist commercial in history. It's not even the most racist commercial this week. If anything, this is brilliant. This is a brilliant ad that's kind of a postmodern study of Dada, just the absurd. You know, it's absurd. I mean it's wonderful. Tyler the Creator, you know, Mountain Dew hooked up with him just so they can get this kind of buzz because Tyler, he's...
IZRAEL: He's his own thing and mission accomplished. You know, but Boyce Money is not known for his art criticism. That's why he - that's why his letters lend themselves to the economy.
MARTIN: I think he's allowed to have an opinion as a citizen, as a consumer...
IZRAEL: Of course he is. Of course he is.
MARTIN: And as a person who lives in the world of cultural images. They're not just for art history majors, Jimi. Commercials are just...
IZRAEL: He is the greatest economist in history.
MARTIN: OK. All right. LZ?
IZRAEL: LZ, you wrote about this, right? What did you think?
GRANDERSON: I did. And, you know, my sentiments are very similar to yours, in that, you know, I think that, you know, he was a little oversensitive. One, it was hyperbole to call it the most racist, you know, commercial ever.
IZRAEL: It's ridiculous. It wasn't even hyperbole. It was ridiculous.
MARTIN: OK, Jimi?
GRANDERSON: I mean I can still - and I can remember the, you know, the commercial with the ancient Chinese secret.
IZRAEL: Calgon. Yeah.
GRANDERSON: Yeah, Calgon.
GRANDERSON: I mean, that to me, if you're going to go, you know, talk about racist, putting in our heads about the mystical Asian is pretty racist in and of itself. And I just find this whole argument of trying to police the language of comedy, which this was, it was absurd comedy and it's part of a three-part series. And if you watch the entire series then you will see this...
GRANDERSON: ...isn't, you know, just one isolated moment of, you know, making fun of race and making light of battered women, but it was about being absurd and that's was the end of that absurd story.
MARTIN: OK. But what I'm always curious about, I'm just the only woman in this group today - well, I'm always the only woman in this group.
MARTIN: But I mean I'm curious about, you know, why it is that Pepsi, you know, that Pepsi ads seem to have this through line of black people behaving badly. I mean like the Super Bowl ad of a black woman who is constantly kicking her boyfriend, throwing things at him to make him eat what she wants, and then finally throws a full Pepsi can at his head, misses him, hits a white woman, and then runs away without offering her any aid. And then there's the ad before that...
GRANDERSON: Oh my God.
MARTIN: ...where the woman, the little boy slaps the guy who is watch, you know, who is about to take his mom out on a date. Nobody else sees a pattern here? Nobody else sees a pattern here? So, what's up with that?
IZRAEL: I do, Michel. Michel, Michel, I see a pattern. I see a pattern that I've seen since the dawn of cinema, since D.W. Griffith did "Birth of a Nation." In the first couple of frames, a black woman is hitting her husband upside the head. I don't know why, to answer your question, that this through line exists...
IZRAEL: ...from that moment to this moment but beyond the fact that it's entertaining. I don't know.
COOPER: Well, there's a different pattern, though.
MARTIN: Go ahead, Clarke.
COOPER: This is the skeptic in me, is that you have, there are ads that marketers are creating that won't make it on television and they're doing this to create a buzz. Look, we're talking about Mountain Dew right now today because of this ad that didn't make it on television that got pulled, that got yanked because of its nature.
MARTIN: Pablo, you want a weigh-in on...
IZRAEL: It isn't a Pepsi problem. It's a media problem.
TORRE: Well, I mean I wonder if the through line is they're trying to appeal to an African-American consumer base. I think maybe, the...
IZRAEL: Just like "Birth of a Nation."
TORRE: Well, I mean Jimi, you just called Mountain Dew Dadaist. I'm still trying to get over that.
IZRAEL: OK. Touche.
IZRAEL: Touche. I'll take that.
TORRE: I mean I wasn't bothered by this. I think LZ is right, at a point of which, you know, there's a goat involved in which it's absurdist, it's really hard to engage it in sincere terms.
MARTIN: I think it would've been more interesting if the fact that she couldn't pick the goat out from a lineup that included a guy in an Army uniform and maybe, you know, a business suit or something, that that to me would have been absurdist and made a point. But, you know, but that's just me.
Well, thank you all.
MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He's also an adjunct professor of film and social media. He joined us from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland. Pablo Torre is a senior editor for ESPN.com, with us from NPR studios in New York. R. Clarke Cooper is a Republican strategist, captain in the Army Reserve, with us in Washington, D.C. And LZ Granderson is a sports columnist with ESPN and CNN, with us from NPR member station WGVU in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Thank you all so much.
TORRE: Thank you.
GRANDERSON: Thank you.
MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast, that's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.