April 29 will go down as a milestone day in the sports world, as current NBA player Jason Collins became the first player in a major U.S. sport to reveal his homosexuality during his active playing days. And while it won’t likely have a dramatic impact on how NBA games themselves are broadcast, the large and ever-expanding sports media ecosystem showed notable signs of disorientation.
The morning announcement - made in a first-person cover essay in Sports Illustrated - instantly elicited a wave of support from many corners, including tweets from TV pioneer Ellen DeGeneres, Lakers great Kobe Bryant and many more. Yet the news also seemed to faze ESPN, which awkwardly stuck for two hours with its coverage of quarterback Tim Tebow’s exit from the New York Jets roster and a routine sampling of highlights before covering Collins.
Then when the network scrambled to air a dedicated segment of justly decorated investigative program Outside the Lines, one of its own NBA analysts, Chris Broussard, took personal issue with Collins. The result was a segment more worthy of The 700 Club than a sports program. An openly gay person is “walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ,” Broussard declared. “So, I would not characterize that person as a Christian, because I don’t think the Bible would characterize that person as a Christian.” Bloggers and viewers on social media seized on the comment, with some calling for Broussard’s job.
On talk radio, by its nature a more conservative medium, the prevailing attitude seemed to be “don’t ask, don’t tell - but since you told, I guess now I have to ask.” Grudgingly, major hosts such as onetime WFAN partners Mike Francesa (still on the CBS-owned all-sports station) and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, now with Sirius XM, addressed the topic but groused all the way through it. “I could care less,” Russo said. “It’s not Jackie Robinson. I’m sorry. It’s not.” Francesa dismissed it as a “dramatic attempt to sell magazines.”
That view - not quite outright homophobia but uncomfortably close - is a common one, though whether or not it continues to get airtime is hard to predict once the Collins news starts to fade. But the halting, uncertain steps the sports media took as the day wore on show there are entirely new dimensions of covering the sports world that many outlets are plainly not equipped to handle. ABC announced it had the first network sit-down with Collins, Tuesday on Good Morning America. That will be interesting TV - but not as much of a test as Collins being halftime guest on a playoff broadcast, or on SportsCenter’s “Sunday Conversation.”
As ESPN and its rivals keep expanding the multi-platform machines they have built to explore every aspect of sports - including the widely expected moment when a player would come out as gay (which Outside the Lines had covered extensively) - they will face well-earned scrutiny over how they react to news in the moment. If sports is a mirror of society, then the media must be ready to cover more than just the Xs and Os.