TELANDER: Gay pitchmen now a much easier sell

Written By BY RICK TELANDER Sports Columnist Posted: 06/29/2014, 02:35am

Capitalism and democracy allow a lot of abuses to the human condition. But their beauty lies in the inevitability of the marketplace and the emotions of the informed citizens forging progress.

Thus, we have Jason Collins — the veteran basketball player who was the first active, big-time athlete to come out as gay — turning into a major product pitchman.

A few decades ago, Collins would have risked getting arrested in certain states or being blackballed in the NBA or even being killed by vigilantes simply for declaring his homosexuality.

Now he is a Nike darling, seen as pure and brave and a cut above the norm. (We won’t mention what a great job the company did hitching its wagon through the years to scumbags such as Marion Jones, Michael Vick, Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius.) Collins actually appears to be a well-spoken, hard-working, non-cheating, non-criminal, caring, good-humored, elite athlete.

The 35-year-old center also pitches for Marriott hotels and its new campaign aimed at gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender consumers. Think the LGBT crowd doesn’t have disposable income? Think again. According to the latest annual tourism report done by San Francisco-based marketing company Community and Marketing Insights, the economic impact of LGBT travelers is ‘‘over $70 billion per year in the U.S. alone.’’

Holy profit motive!

But what a change in our communal perceptions, too. Gay people get legally married now. They have kids. They get insurance, etc. They might even live next door!

As Robert Tuchman, president of sports and entertainment marketing company Goviva, told the Wall Street Journal recently about Collins, ‘‘I’d want him as a spokesperson for . . . the mainstream. He stands for what you want to portray to customers.’’

LET’S BE HONEST HERE. LeBron James may be the most talented player in the NBA, and where he finally decides to play might be the biggest news of the spring. And, yes, the Bulls are likely to be in the hunt for his services.

But do you really want him coming here?

Do you really want Chicago to claim all The King’s baggage, all his decisions and mercenary inclinations, after all the places he’s been and talked about, and say to yourself, Hooray! He can bring the Bulls a championship!

Not me.

The rent-a-star thing can be as deflating as not winning at all. Does anybody care that Kevin Garnett is now a Net, that Steve Nash is a Laker or whatever he is at the moment?

For some reason, if Knicks free agent Carmelo Anthony comes to the Bulls, it won’t bother me. Same with Kevin Love, almost anybody.

But James? Don’t want him.

More than that, don’t need him.

The Blackhawks’ first pick in Friday night’s 2014 NHL draft was a skinny teenager named Nick Schmaltz from Green Bay. From the minor-league Green Bay Gamblers, that is. Schmaltz, a nifty-skating center, was born in Madison, Wisconsin, which is well across the Cheese Curtain that separates the NFL good-guy Bears from the detested Packers.

Schmaltz has cheddar in his DNA. Maybe on his head. Do we care?

Ha. The Hawks have needed a second-line center for about a century, and if this wispy 167-pounder can slip in behind first-liner Jonathan Toews sometime soon, he can root for bighead carp in Lake Michigan for all any fans will care.

I want to say a belated but heartfelt farewell to Chicago native and longtime WBBM radio sports reporter Eric Brown, who died last week of colon cancer. He was only 58.

Eric was one of the nice guys in this sporting business, and I will remember fondly the times we sat after games, often with many other members of our ragtag troupe — writers and announcers and statisticians and media members of all stripes — and simply shot the breeze for fun and relaxation.

I didn’t know Eric beyond work, didn’t know he was sick, for sure, though I’m guessing everybody in the radio biz did.

For me, his death is a reminder of one of the sadnesses of this journalistic career wherein, in our news-gathering horde, you may not miss someone at first when he’s absent for a while, but eventually the vacuum becomes almost tangible, and you ask someone in the press room or parking lot or tunnel casually where so-and-so is — you haven’t seen him; did he change jobs? Get reassigned? — and the person you asked looks at you, sees you’re serious, and you get the news.

Goodbye, Eric. There’s an emptiness where you were.

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