'Inside the NBA' host Kenny Smith talks race and sexuality in sports

NBA player Jason Collins’ decision to come out as gay continues to be the biggest news of the week -- a story amplified by the comments of basketball analyst Chris Broussard on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" calling homosexuality "an open rebellion to God."

In the immediate 24 hours following Collins’ announcement, the most poignant counterbalance to Broussard’s opine came from “Inside the NBA” host and former player Kenny Smith – who evoked the advice basketball legend and civil rights pioneer Bill Russell gave him during his rookie season in the NBA: “As an African American I could never, ever discredit inclusion, because that’s the one thing we always wanted.”

Smith had the chance to express that sentiment to Collins himself in an interview Tuesday night on "Inside the NBA." In the minutes preceding that interview, Smith spoke to The Times about Collins and about the role sports broadcasters will play in furthering Collins’ story in the days and months ahead.  

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Smith began by expressing a certain amount of sadness that a gay player in the NBA evoked such sturm und drang in the first place.

“Those things should be normal,” he said.

As a broadcaster, however – especially in the wake of Broussard’s rant -- Smith was well aware of the significance of the moment – and that eyes were as much on him as they were on Collins. As an African American broadcaster in particular, Smith felt he bore a particular burden to shift the narrative on Collins away from the Chris Broussards of the world.

“I take this seriously,” Smith said. “You can have your own thought process about things, but you still need to include and co-exist with other people.”

Asked what the reaction to his comments was from his large network of NBA players past and present, Smith didn’t get into details, but suggested he did take some flack for his position.

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“The people who find this controversial don’t understand,” he said. “As African Americans, we always have to fight for inclusion. Despite your moral background: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, it doesn’t matter.”

These issues haven’t been addressed publicly in the sports universe for quite some time – largely because the sports world hasn’t had a figure like Collins willing to bring the issue to the fore. Advocacy and social justice used to be common threads in the sports world: think Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Roberto Clemente.

That largely changed in the '80s with the rise of Michael Jordan, whose approach to political advocacy was perhaps best embodied by his legendary quote: “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

Jordan gave birth to the era of athlete as brand – and the bland quotes, and apolitical, business-like demeanor that accompanied it.

By necessity, sports reporting has largely defaulted into becoming an exercise in numerical distraction -- a mass machine designed to churn out salary cap numbers, free agent signings, and advanced scouting statistics.  

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As Broussard perhaps best demonstrated, a figure like Collins’ throws a monkey wrench in that machine. 

With the initial wave of interest waning, the Collins story now gives broadcasters a chance to expand their depth in ways they haven't been able to in some time. Smith says he plans to seize the moment as best he can.

“I think, for me, one of the things I’ve been blessed with is the ability to speak with clarity. And now is my chance to use that clarity to include everyone in this discussion -- including people who don’t share my beliefs.”  


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