I feel rather self-conscious that the headline that finally got me to pay a bit closer attention to Jason Collins, and everything that he represents now that he has a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets, was related to a sudden spike in jersey sales. But that’s the way the NBA portion of my brain works, so I have to pay attention to those electrical impulses that I have little control over. I was undoubtedly interested by the fact that, ever since the NBA started selling Collin’s #98 jersey, filled with deeply significant meanings that extend beyond your run-of-the-mill oddly-numbered jersey, it has been the best-selling article of clothing in the NBA. The jersey became available online on Sunday, and in the NBA store in New York City this past Tuesday, and it has been a huge hit. Though the league has declined to provide specific figures, Vicky Picca, NBA Senior Vice President of Legal and Business Affairs, confirmed to Reuters that it had been the top-selling jersey over the past few days. Jason Collins had joined an elite club of top-sellers, including Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose. Even the most casual of fans could tell you that this accolade is commendable for a 35-year-old center on a 10-day contract. And since Sunday afternoon, a very large chunk of consumers have agreed, at least with their dollars and cents, and through transactions with the NBA.
In my perspective, the Jason Collins story has been a balancing act, and for most who have covered it, it has struck a reflective tone. Most of the most jubilant fanfare (and deplorable hate) came when Collins came out last spring, thus becoming the first openly gay professional athlete in any of the “Big Four” sports. With the triumphalism out of the way, most have seemed content to let him just play basketball, and offer takes that emphasize that Collins’ primary job right now is to make the Nets, and that everything else largely comes second. In his piece for TrueHoop, Kevin Arnovitz emphasized that during his period of basketball unemployment, Collins experienced his “Year Zero” where he could begin to “sculpt an identity as a gay person.” During that period of downtime, Collins “established new friendships in different social communities around the country, and started dating” — and even got invited to hang out with the Obama’s a few times. Now, with a newfound sense of confidence and motivation, Collins focus could be on basketball, and not with identity-formation or public advocacy. Kelly Dwyer echoed this sentiment in his piece for Yahoo! Sports, but added that Collins’ return to the court marks a tangible moment where preconceived notions about homosexuality can be destroyed forever. “This is news because your children, or friends of your children, or children that your children know, or children that you might be coaching in a rec league, need to know that Jason Collins will become a productive player on a pro basketball team,” writes Dwyer, “while liking who he likes. While loving who he loves.” For his part, Collins seemed focused on the task at hand: playing basketball games for the Nets. So we’re left with something of a complicated picture. Collins’ return to the court is both a big deal and no big deal at once. Yes, there’s history being made here. But at the same time there’s nothing unnatural about a 7-footer with a decade of playing experience signing a 10-day contract with a playoff team. Additionally, there is nothing unnatural about men falling in love with men, or women falling in love with women. This is a difficult distinction to make — the man is not unique, but highly unique at the same time — and it’s hard to find the appropriate tone to recognize this achievement.
Yet, the dollars spent on the jersey of this 10-day player seems to emphasize that it is a big deal, a very big deal indeed. I’ve written about a myriad of ways that NBA fans cheer with dollars, and at the moment, the masses are as cheering loudly for Jason Collins as they would for Kobe, LeBron or Melo. Indeed, up until the moment he came out, Collins had a reputation as a steady but relatively underwhelming center, good for some passable defense and six personal fouls. He started in an NBA Finals early in his career, and ended up on the benches of seven different NBA teams, mostly relegated to spot duty and garbage time. Such a player rarely gets a jersey in the NBA store, let alone a well-purchased one. It also goes without saying that there are many different options for consumers when it comes to NBA apparel, and that the NBA store is chock full with all sorts of wares for the individual with some cash to spend. And you’d better have cash to spend, if you wish to market the NBA brand on shirts, hats, cups, cozies and fuzzy slippers. Jerseys, in particular, are big ticket items, ranging between $80 for youth sizes and $120 for adults. Given the price point for the item flying off the racks, and the competition that the player whose name is featured on the back of the jersey, there really isn’t any other way to look at it. The buying public has spoken: Jason Collins, for all intents and purposes, is a superstar, though one of a completely different sort that we’ve ever seen before. In Collins, we have a superstar buffeted on the strengths of his historical significance, rather than his ability to excel at basketball. And if ledgers are to be trusted, he is, at this moment, the most popular player in the NBA.
As I enter my third decade of watching basketball, I am sad to say that I’ve lost most of that bright idealism that informed my early fanhood. Countless years of bad basketball at Oracle Arena, alongside five years of bad basketball in Minnesota and four years in Sonics-less non-basketball in Seattle destroyed most notions of the NBA as really being interested in the emotions of its fans. The NBA has no impetus to play the role of a human interest group, nor does an NBA team have a requirement to be a functioning member of civil society. Indeed, the NBA benefits from the emotional connections fans create between the product and themselves, but in the end, the ultimate display of affection is the way that connection manifests itself financially; at the turnstiles and the cash registers which keep the league profitable and growing. The NBA looks to arenas where human emotions can be made tangible through consumption of the product at a fairly high price. Ethnic identity and long, complicated histories can be packaged into a “Los Lakers” jersey during Noche Latina (get yours today for $110), and environmental activism (through the form of buying expensive products and donating to large environmental organizations) can be symbolized canned into a “NBA Green” shirt (only $30 at the NBA store). The memories of leaders like Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King can be (com)modified into many different products, from television spots for lightly-watched movies to entire slates of games on federal holidays. In that regard, the NBA seems eternally focused on more, the ways to accrue more of something; to squeeze the last little bit out of every opportunity. And it’s with that history in mind that I gulp in fear for how they look on with excitement as Jason Collins’ jersey vanishes from the shelves, and their coffers grow larger in his name (and universal product code.)
To its credit, the NBA has established itself as a place where the struggle is acknowledged, and at times, genuinely celebrated. The NBA lauds itself for its diversity, and it is leading its peers when it comes to folks of color getting upper-level jobs with NBA teams, or occupying other positions of prominence within the league. It has also established itself as the only league that will look to social justice, and celebrations of otherness, as a way to market itself, and profit through the emotions of its largely progressive, urbane fan base. In this way, the NBA can take advantage of struggles that predated the involvement of the Association, including environmental activism, celebration of diversity, and of course, advocacy for LGBTQ folks, both in the United States and abroad. The NBA has no problem becoming a platform for advocacy. But the NBA has to profit in order for it to really become a initiative; a cause to continue for seasons to come. It has to see that you’re willing to spend on it, before the NBA deigns to spend anything on it as well.
So, if Jason Collins’ 10-day contract expires, and his NBA dream ends right where it began — with the Nets organization, nearly a decade after they chose to draft him with their first round pick — it will be up to those well meaning folks who have chosen to become advocates with their purchasing power, to give this event the meaning it deserves. It will take purposeful acts from individuals like 28 year old lawyer Joseph Fireman, who feels that Collins’ jersey represents ”acceptance and respect of all people” as well as “something that the NBA should stand for” and “that America should stand for,” to give that $120 article of clothing meaning. It will be incumbent upon this growing mass of people who bought that number 98 jersey to make it something more than a team initiative, a way for the NBA to make money. Even if Collins grabs every rebound, blocks every shot, and lets his playing do all of the talking, consumers will have to take an additional step to make sure this moment goes beyond a standard Noche Latina promotional event, or an empty celebration for Black History Month, actualized through colorful shoes and faux-dramatic commercials. They will have to be more than a people who chose to commodified their advocacy. They will have to act to make Collins’ work really count in every arena, whether there’s an NBA basketball court in it or not.