There were few things that I hated more than the moment on the school timetable marked “sports”. Perhaps it was the brutal “games” we had to play for what I can only imagine looking back were the teachers’ slightly perverse pleasures. These included “firing squad” that involved lining up us 11-year-old boys against the gym wall while the teachers blasted a succession of footballs at us – you were allowed to sit down once you were smacked stingingly on the legs. But, actually, my dread was more to do with the miserable sense of failure that hour always left me with – all down to my special inability to make any link between foot and ball, racquet and shuttlecock.
I knew – as did everyone around me – that I was not going to be a bonus on any team: when I saw a cricket ball heading my way, my only thought was, “shit, get out of the way, this is going to hurt if I try and catch it,” (I could never understand why it couldn’t be substituted for a nice soft tennis ball). OK, I was a wuss but there was something about school sports that was brutal, nasty and incapable of welcoming into the fold anyone who didn’t fit a stereotype.
Luckily, as I got older I realised that swimming, running and the gym, were enjoyable and healthy and did not involve hanging out with sadistic gym instructors working out their issues on kids. I don’t think that it helped me being gay either. Not that I would say those words for another decade plus.
I don’t know that much has changed since then. Sport still seems to be closed shop, a place where too often the bonding is done over sameness. So when Jason Collins made headlines around the world this week by becoming the first out player in any major US team sport I was happy. Well, kind of. For a few minutes.
Collins seems a sorted guy, a good role model for anyone and he told his story to Sports Illustrated in a measured and moving way. But don’t expect this to really be the game changer some people are exclaiming. Its uniqueness was underlined by the fact that this simple, ultimately boring fact, prompted public statements of support from former president Bill Clinton and present incumbent Barack Obama.
Sport, that world where everyone gets to play on the metaphorical level-playing field, where it’s all about the taking part, is still a world that’s light years behind even conservative political parties, numerous armies and navies, the diplomatic corps, and the most thrusting boardrooms.
Sport likes to dress itself up in the victory flag of camaraderie but it’s all fake. It’s a world built on exclusion and humiliation. Collins has done a brave thing but I bet it won’t change school sports. The firing squad is here to stay.
Andrew Tuck is editor of Monocle.