Have the courage to defend the word

  • Jason Collins
Jason Collins (Getty Images file )
May 14, 2013|By Ryan Smith, For RedEye

After Jason Collins leaped out of the closet in a Sports Illustrated cover story, the NBA player was lauded for the courage of his declaration—becoming the first active male athlete in the four major professional sports to come out as gay. Others remained unimpressed.

"Collins is a hero?" conservative pundit Ben Shapiro tweeted. "Our standard for heroism has dropped quite a bit since Normandy."

"Courage" and "heroism" are words we don't quite know what to do with. They've been uttered too often in vain to describe celebrities headed to a drug/alcohol/sex addiction rehab center (sorry, that's self-preservation), actors who wear less makeup/do nude scenes in their latest movies (it's just a different brand of vanity), or millionaire athletes who play through injuries.

So then we overcorrect and reserve those terms instead for physical rather than moral courage. We deservedly salute our military men and women, police officers, firefighters and those who risk bodily harm to protect us from all sorts of danger. But that strict definition underestimates acts of greatness in our everyday lives. Here's how I think courage should be defined in 2013:

>>It was displayed by the bystanders in the Boston Marathon bombing who helped the victims instead of fleeing.

>>It's exemplified in the residents of Chicago's South and West sides who refuse to cave to the gun violence in their neighborhoods—the young CPS students who marched downtown last year shouting "I will live, not die." It's not those who refuse to travel on the CTA or venture anywhere west of Western Avenue or south of the Loop because they hear it might be unsafe.

>>It's the fast food and retail workers who risked their jobs in April to protest the absurdly low wages offered by their employers in Chicago.

>>It's in thousands of teachers, parents and students who rallied in Daley Plaza in March to protest Mayor Emanuel's decision to close 54 public schools earlier this year. Dozens were cited by police.

>>Courage is speaking out when someone makes a racist or sexist joke or remark, not just ignoring it or pretending to laugh along.

>>It's standing up for not only your friends and families, but people you don't care about or despise. It's looking people in the eye when they speak to you on the CTA or on the street and answering "No" or "Yes." It's not pretending to look at your phone or walking the other way.

>>It's the equal rights activists who have shed blood, sweat and tears over the years to fight for the gay marriage bill that is on the verge of passing in Illinois, not the politicians who have waited until it become politically viable to do so.

>>It comes from people like Jason Collins, who wasn't forced to come out of the closet, who risked alienation and discrimination to open the door for other gay athletes to make that same bold step in the future.

Living courageously or cowardly is a choice we make every day—whether we think about it that way or not.

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

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