The folks at MSNBC are still getting thrills down their leg at the thought of a out-of-the-closet gay man playing in the NBA.
Today, openly gay news anchor and MSNBC Live host Thomas Roberts -- who on a regular basis runs gay marriage advocacy segments on his program -- treated viewers to a puff piece in which he compared Washington Wizards center Jason Collins to the African-American athlete who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. [See video after jump. MP3 audio here.]
Roberts began the segment by immediately suggesting that Collins is the modern day Jackie Robinson:
So first there was the number 42. Now there is the number 98. Two historic numbers from the world of professional sports that were forever united now on the civil rights front. The first is worn by the Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, we all know him He shattered baseball's color barrier in 1942. And the second worn by Jason Collins of the Washington Wizards and the Boston Celtics who this week made history as the first active male NBA athlete to come out as gay in this country's 142 years of pro sports.
Roberts then hyped, “sales of jerseys bearing Collins' name and number are up 100% on the team’s online store.” Collins’ decision to wear the number 98 was reportedly to honor Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was brutally murdered in 1998. Roberts brought on Shepard's parents to discuss their opinion that more gay athletes should “come out.”
Roberts is certainly not the first anchor to champion the virtually unknown basketball player into the limelight, but Roberts’ on-air comparison of Collins to Robinson is not only factually inaccurate but insincere.
Ever since Collins’ admitted he was gay, the media have fallen in love with him, despite the fact that his 11 year NBA career has been incredibly lackluster and that's why he remains virtually unknown to the vast majority of Americans, much less professional basketball fans. This hasn’t stopped the media from creating the nobody within the NBA, he averages 3.6 points per game in his career, to the media’s newest darling.
ABC celebrated Collins, with Good Morning America co-host George Stephanopoulos landing an exclusive interview with the player, calling his decision one that “shattered stereotypes in the macho world of pro sports.”
Now compare that to how Jackie Robinson, a 6-time Major League Baseball All-Star and 1962 member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was treated when he broke baseball’s color barrier. Numerous baseball teams threatened to strike against the Brooklyn Dodgers if Robinson played. In addition, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, as well as numerous Phillies players was known to yell racial slurs at Robinson. Robinson became the target of violence on the field by opponents and at one point received a huge gash on his leg from a confrontation with another player.
At age 34, Collins will become a free agent at the conclusion of this NBA season. Roberts and the rest of the media’s push for Collins might even land him another NBA job, but to compare him to Jackie Robinson is inappropriate. Unlike Robinson, Collins has seen overwhelming support from the press and from fellow athletes. Heck, he even got a phone call from the president of the United States congratulating him for his "courage" in coming out. Did Robinson get such a call from President Truman in 1947 when he broke the color barrier?
Roberts’ gay activism is no new thing, but his inability to acknowledge the vast historical differences between a Hall of Fame athlete in Jackie Robinson and an obscure backup center for the Washington Wizards should be insulting to sports fans and history buffs everywhere.
Oh well, at least Roberts didn't call for Collins's #98 jersey to be retired from professional basketball when Collins decides to give up playing in the pros. But then again, let's not give Roberts any ideas.
See relevant transcript below.
May 2, 2013
11:34 a.m. EDT
THOMAS ROBERTS: Alright, so first there was the number 42. Now there is the number 98. Two historic numbers from the world of professional sports that were forever united now on the civil rights front. The first is worn by the Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, we all know him He shattered baseball's color barrier in 1942. And the second worn by Jason Collins of the Washington Wizards and the Boston Celtics who this week made history as the first active male NBA athlete to come out as gay in this country's 142 years of pro sports. Now since then, sales of jerseys bearing Collins' name and number are up 100% on the team’s online store. Collins says the number 98 is a tribute to Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was murdered in an infamous hate crime in 1998. Joining me now are Matthew's parents, Judy and Dennis co-founders of the Matthew Shepherd Foundation to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance. It's nice to see both of you today. And Dennis, I want to start with you. How did you feel when it was learned and revealed that Jason Collins said why he wears the number 98 and that your son is now forever linked to American sports history?
DENNIS SHEPARD: It is rather shocking. We didn't have any concept that someone would come out to start with this quickly in the NBA let alone that he would wear a jersey commemorating what happened to Matt in 1998. It's rather stunning to both of us.
ROBERTS: One thing we recognize this week, the president had called Jason Collins to commend him for coming out. Also brought him up in his press conference saying he's proud of him, but Judy, the president also made a comment about your son Matthew back in 2009. I just want to remind everybody.
BARACK OBAMA: And it's a testament to Matthew and others who have been victims of attacks. Not just meant to break bones but to break spirits. Not just meant to inflict harm but to instill fear. Together we will have moved closer to that day to when no one has to be afraid to be gay in America.
ROBERTS: Moving closer to that day when no one has to be afraid to be gay in America. I know, Judy, that you've described how immensely moved you were by this gesture from Jason Collins. But now that you've had time to process some of the emotions, how do you feel about the overwhelming support that Jason has received? And does it validate the work that you all have done since Matthew's death?
JUDY SHEPARD: Well, I think it's a great validation of the work that so many people have done. We just try to keep Matt's story relevant and in the news so people understand that this hate is still out there. We may feel very comfortable in our own little bubble, but unfortunately, there are areas where that hate still exists. Having Jason come out and having the bravery and courage and the grace in which he's done it, it's really quite incredible. We're very honored.
ROBERTS: And Dennis, as Judy points out, there's still a sad side of this story. You know, Collins' decision, while widely received receptively and with positive attention, there's still been some intolerance that’s been pushed at him through social media and some pretty nasty stuff too. We know Spike Lee has taken to his twitter feed to combat some of it. As someone who suffered the loss of their own child through such hatred, where do we go now? Where do we build on this momentum to help shatter and break down these barriers?
DENNIS: Well, you just keep encouraging other athletes to come out as well as other gay Americans throughout the country. The more that people talk about it, the more normal that it becomes. And pretty soon, you're not considering this to be a first. It's just who you are. And you can focus on what you really need to focus on, which is your family and your career and your personal life.
ROBERTS: Judy, it's been 15 years since Matthew died. What do you think he would make of all of this? How do you think he would react to this?
JUDY: You know, we had a discussion in the summer of '98. And he asked me if I thought gay marriage would ever be allowed. And I said, matt, I think in my lifetime, I will not see it. But I think you will see it in yours. And ironically, it was just the opposite. I think he would be over the moon with all the progress we've made. And As long as people keep telling their stories, we're just going to go further.
ROBERTS: Judy and Dennis Shepard, thank you both for coming on our show today. And thank you so much for the work you guys are doing through the foundation. You guys are saving lives.
JUDY: Thanks, Thomas. We really appreciate that. Thanks.