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Don’t Ask…Just Play

By Robert MacCoun

Like many Americans, I took my kids to see the new Jackie Robinson bio-pic “42.”  They were appropriately shocked and appalled by the vile way he was treated by the bigots he faced in the streets and on the field.  On the way home, I warned them to “brace yourselves – sometime very soon we’re going to see a major sports figure coming out of the closet and announcing he’s gay.” 

Only days later, it happened. But so far at least, thankfully, Jason Collins has received a far more warm and encouraging public response than anyone could have dared to hope for.  The handful of media personalities (and a Wisconsin church) that have expressed hostile opinions have been besieged with angry rebuttals across the Web. Many have noted the parallels between openly gay athletes and our national debate about openly gay soldiers in the US military.  Given the mostly warm reception for Jason Collins, it is tempting to wonder what all the fuss was about.

In 1993, I was part of a civilian team at RAND tasked by the Clinton Administration to study whether the ban on gay and lesbian military personnel could be ended “in a manner that is practical and realistic, and consistent with the high standards of combat effectiveness and unit cohesion our Armed Forces must maintain.”  My job was to read several hundred published and unpublished studies of cohesion in military units, sports teams, and ad-hoc experimental groups, and to interview the military’s leading experts on unit cohesion.  I found that the data told a story very much at odds with what the military was telling us – and itself. The romantic Hollywood myth that soldiers only fight for their buddies implies that you have to like your colleagues to work with them (and fight with them).  The data showed that this form of “social cohesion” had little bearing on actual team performance.  Rather, groups perform well when they have high “task cohesion” – a common loyalty to a shared mission and shared code of professionalism. 

Our conclusion that the military could lift its ban without jeopardizing military effectiveness fell on deaf ears.  In 2010, we were asked to revisit the issue, and a wealth of new real-world evidence confirmed our original analysis.  But this time, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed with only minimal of drama.  A tempting analysis is that the research didn’t matter; politics rules and public opinion drives politics.  But that’s not quite right.  It isn’t that public opinion overrode any empirical considerations about threats to military effectiveness.  Rather, hostile attitudes toward gays and lesbians were the only real threat to military effectiveness—or more precisely, people’s beliefs about how others with hostile attitudes would behave if the ban were to be lifted.

And that’s what’s so important about the way Americans have responded to Jason Collins’ courageous decision to be open about himself.  From here on out, it will be very clear to everyone that if there are any conflicts, the gay and lesbian athletes aren’t the ones letting their personal issues hurt the team.