Pride or Prejudice?

by Casey Barrett

Why aren’t there more out swimmers? 

Blame it on the big city. The buried journalist inside of me knew that Jason Collins’s coming out party was big news. The first out gay athlete in a major professional sport… a guy still immersed in a proud 12-year NBA career. That’s pretty major. Big enough for Sports Illustrated to stop the presses and splash Collins on its cover. So then why did it feel like it shouldn’t have been any news at all?

Maybe because living in a place like New York, and having plenty of gay friends and colleagues, makes this “announcement” sound like a quaint little Victorian era scandal. If you have a problem with an athlete’s sexuality, or anyone’s sexuality for that matter, I feel sorry for you. No, really.

I don’t care who Jason Collins goes to bed with any more than who Kobe Bryant cheats with. Or Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods or any of the other fine moral-free manly role models we know and love. Those three heterosexual gentlemen above are, by virtually every account I’ve heard, horrible human beings. Spiteful egomaniacs incapable of fidelity or humility. Yet, when any one of them is on the court or the links, I can’t take my eyes off of them. They’re geniuses at what they do, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold. Jason Collins, on the other hand, sounds like a damn good guy, but I can’t say I’ve ever watched a single minute of him playing basketball.

Why can’t we separate the two? Well, because this is sex we’re talking about, and there’s nothing simple about that. Especially not when God gets involved…

But enough about God. I’m pretty sure he’s cool with Jason Collins. No, that’s not true. I’m quite positive He couldn’t give two shits about Jason Collins and his attraction to men. In that, at least, the Big Man and I are on the same page. I don’t care either.

It would just be nice if athletes in our sport could be carelessly open about their preferences too. After all, this is a sport with more than its share of past gay champions. Canada’s Mark Tewksbury and Australia’s Daniel Kowalski, to name two terrific role models. And of course, Bruce Hayes, of ’84 Olympic fame. All due respect to Jason Lezak, but Hayes still might have you beat for the greatest relay leg ever swum. If it’s before your era, take a look.

Unfortunately, all those guys came out a few years after they hung up their goggles. That’s the way it usually goes. Just stay back in that closet until the cameras go away, then it will be a little safer. Problem is, that’s when no one’s paying attention. No one, like say, a teenage kid struggling with suicidal thoughts, adrift and depressed in some small God-fearing close-minded town.

I wish I could send my younger self this message of tolerance. That 16-year-old self trapped in an all-boys Catholic school, longing to get out of there, hormones raging, wanting to hook up with girls more than anything else on earth – and being fearful and distrustful of any guy who didn’t feel the same way. That’s called homophobia. Fearing what you can’t understand. Treating someone as different, as lesser, because they don’t have the same “natural” urges as you do.

It’s easy to act tolerant and holier-than-thou when you’re fully formed and comfortable in your own skin, but it’s easy to forget how hard it was as a kid. When everyone’s just trying to figure their shit out… I can only imagine how hard it is for the guys and girls who, through no fault of their own, want something different with their sex lives.

With swimmers, it might be even more difficult. This is a sport where every athlete is mostly naked, invariably ripped, wet, and usually panting. The sexuality of it is impossible to ignore. That can be troublesome. Especially for those struggling with attractions that aren’t exactly embraced inside every locker room.

Maybe Jason Collins has opened the door for countless other closeted pro athletes to come forward now without fear. It would be nice if some brave Olympic swimmers decide to join him in proud solidarity.

But it will be really nice when no one cares at all.