Jason Collins, Revisited

A new study explores how newspapers and social media framed a historic first.
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Jason  Collins of the Brooklyn Nets before a game against the Washington  Wizards at the Verizon Center on March 15, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr)

Jason Collins of the Brooklyn Nets before a game against the Washington Wizards at the Verizon Center on March 15, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr)

For five consecutive days in December 1975, the Washington Star ran a series, authored by Lynn Rosellini, datedly titled “Homosexuals in Sports.” In it, she wrote that “some of the biggest names in football are homosexual or bisexual.”

The reaction was mostly blind indignation. Outraged by the outrage, David Kopay, a recently retired NFL player, responded by becoming the first major professional team sport athlete to come out. Naturally, he hoped others would follow. In an interview with the Washington Post 38 years later, he expressed disappointment that so few have.

It’s not entirely surprising. Sport is a central site for hegemonic masculinity, and a bastion for homophobia. Coming out means navigating that politically charged terrain. Further, in the media discourse of sport, rarely are issues of institutional homophobia investigated and addressed. Referring to sports as an “equal playing field,” even with good intention, negates the need for serious discussion about how sport reinforces not only homophobia but also racism and gender issues.

“[B]y positioning themselves as supportive of gay players, journalists and Twitter followers alike can engage in self-congratulation for progressiveness and tolerance while systemic homophobia in sports remains prevalent.”

On April 29, 2013, at SI.com, Jason Collins, a male athlete still active in sport, came out. In the first four weeks the story was online, it garnered more than five million pageviews—more than double the normal Web traffic for Sports Illustrated’s site.

“I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay,” Collins writes in his opening paragraph. In the resulting wave of media interviews Collins said he hoped his announcement would encourage other athletes to come out, both echoing the words of Kopay and illustrating how incremental the progress has been for gay athletes.

This month, in the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, a new study looks at the media framing of Collins’ announcement by examining 364 newspaper articles and 7,556 tweets that ran in the week following his announcement. The results showed largely positive but widely divergent responses. The study, led by Andrew Billings, also offers insight in how both legacy media and social media present a historic first—an act that reverberates in the world of sport but also stretches far beyond it.

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Collins doesn’t fit in the box stereotypically assigned to gay male athletes. In many ways he fits the normative definition of masculinity. As a player, standing seven feet tall and weighing in at 255 pounds, he was on the court because of his size, strength, and durability. He was a defensive stopper, grinding it out in the low post and clamoring for rebounds among the other giants of the game. By studying the reaction to Collins’ coming out, researchers were able to glean not only how modern society understands gay and lesbian identity, but “the ancillary issues related to identity politics.”

The study tabled the most prevalent themes used in the media framing surrounding the publication of Collins’ story. The researchers found considerable difference between legacy media and social media. For newspapers, the three most prevalent themes were referring to the announcement as a watershed moment, highlighting celebrity support, and comparing this case with others. On Twitter, the top three themes were categorized as “other,” links to civil rights, and general support.

“The newspapers tended to use Twitter, for the first few days, to enter the story and see how people were responding to it,” says Billings, the study’s lead author. “Newspapers were far more likely to cross promote the Twitter universe than Twitter was to cross promote from newspapers.”

By day three, newspapers were offering varying perspectives and deeper analysis. In contrast, by day six, on Twitter, there was hardly anything that could be categorized. While newspapers were able to investigate the impact of Collins’ coming out, Twitter was focused more on the stories that could be attached to him.

“Twitter was very popular, very big on the story to begin with but then it got the point where there was no common theme within it,” Billings says.

Surprisingly the vast majority of the tweets captured by the study contained none of the predominant frames circulated by the mainstream media. In other words, “public commentary did not echo, reinforce, or disseminate the major framing devices employed by legacy media,” according to Billings.

Twitter also tugged at other strings that newspapers largely ignored, mainly an emphasis on the connections to civil rights and discussion based around religion.

Despite the multitude of responses on Twitter, the top five themes remained constant over the studied timeline, albeit in different orders. Newspapers, on the other hand, had various themes move in and out of the top five, and some themes, while relevant for one platform, were virtually non-existent on the other.

News reports turned to other athletes who tweeted their support, such as Kobe Bryant, and presented them as opinion leaders. The celebrity “reactions” to Collins’ announcement were a way to frame the coverage of the story.

Lost in that practice though, was the fact that the story was written in Collins’ voice, in his own words, and less than half of all the stories written afterwards quoted him directly. Effectively, Collins became someone who was talked about, rather than someone who was in control of the narrative. In fact, Billings’ study shows nearly as many newspaper articles (123) directly referenced responses on Twitter as cited Collins in his own words (148). “The story become less about Collins’ and more about their interpretation” Billings says.

And while the overall tone was supportive and congratulatory, it’s important to clear any false assumption that Collins’ coming out represents full equality for gays and lesbians in sport, or society at large. The study explains this further: “[B]y positioning themselves as supportive of gay players, journalists and Twitter followers alike can engage in self-congratulation for progressiveness and tolerance while systemic homophobia in sports remains prevalent.”

As the days passed, newspaper coverage began to focus less on celebrity support of Collins and instead shifted to the ramifications for race, religion, and civil rights. Commentary on social media expanded to the point that, a week after the story broke, no overarching theme could be discerned.

Billings says a takeaway here is that traditional media allows for something that social media seemingly has in short supply: reflection. That’s important not only in framing historic events, but also for the nuance and complexity of coming out.

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Collins’ announcement is significant, that much is obvious, but it doesn’t mark the end of homophobia in sports. It doesn’t account for the pressures to remain closeted and the challenges gay and lesbian players continue to face.

Sport, and the world of celebrity, is built on status and there’s hope that the next athlete to come out will be one who already toils in the spotlight. That’s not to minimize the impact of Collins’ coming out, but the reality of what it will take to bring the story to the largest audience possible.

“We’re waiting for a prominent athlete in a team sport to really move this conversation forward,” Billings says. “The all-pro who is playing at the all-pro level and indispensable to their team. That’s when it’s going to be another layer.”

The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.

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