In the space of a little more than two months, the NBA has seen the highs and lows of social change. Jason Collins is the feel-good story, Donald Sterling whatever is its polar opposite.
The high came in early February when the Brooklyn Nets signed Collins, making him the first openly gay male in one of the four big team sports. Collins was virtually universally accepted by the players, coaches and fans in the league and the NBA basked in the glow of being the first in breaking a major social barrier.
Fast forward to this weekend and the taped racist remarks allegedly made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Sterling, who sounded more like a plantation owner in 1850 than the owner of a modern sports team whose players are predominantly African American. Sterling has been universally condemned by players, fans and the media, though his fellow owners have so far stayed quiet until the league finishes its investigation. The remarks and their fallout have overshadowed the playoffs, the league's crown jewel.
The reactions to Collins coming out in 2013 and playing in 2014, and Sterling's comments are similar in that transcended the boundaries of sport and made statements about society. But that is the only similarity. "It crosses the line, the other way," Collins told the New York Times.
The stories were so big that President Obama felt obliged to weigh in on both. He said of Collins: "I told him I couldn't be prouder... one of the extraordinary measures of progress that we've seen in this country has been the recognition that the LGBT community deserves full equality, not just partial equality. Not just tolerance, but a recognition that they're fully a part of the American family."
Obama's tone was much different on Sterling, saying from a trip in Asia: "When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything," the president said. "You just let them talk."
LeBron James, the game's biggest star, also felt compelled to comment. "There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league," James said, almost exactly a year to the day he said he had "the utmost respect for Jason. If you can play the game, then that’s all that matters at the end of the day."
Collins and Sterling -- symbolizing sexual orientation and race in sports -- represent the best and worst in the trajectory of social movements. Many are quick to declare racial issues dead (though it's almost never people of color who say this). Slavery was outlawed 150 years ago and the Civil Rights Act was passed 50 years ago and there is no doubt African Americans have made tremendous strides, especially in sports. Yet we still hear from a person who owns an NBA team that he considers his employees inferior. Racism may not be pervasive, but it's far from dead.
For years we heard it was impossible for an openly gay man to play pro sports because of homophobia. Yet here we have Collins, seamlessly integrated on a Nets team that is in the playoffs and all the predicted terrible things that would happen to a gay player never materialized. The impossible has become the possible. Let's not kid ourselves that homophobia is gone; if that was true, there would be more than one gay NBA player. But it is no longer cool to be homophobic in sports, and that is a huge victory from just a few years ago.
Social change is often a case of two steps forward and a half-step back and never in a perfectly straight line up. There are struggles and setbacks and "isms" and "phobias" never disappear. Donald Sterling is a reminder of the worst inside us, Jason Collins the best.