In a Sports Illustrated cover story yesterday, NBA center Jason Collins broke what is perhaps the last major barrier in major American sports by publicly declaring that he is gay. “I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport,” he said in a heartfelt essay he wrote for this week’s issue of SI. “But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.” It is a conversation that has been had in fits and starts for some time now, but Collins’ gives gay male athletes a face and a name to rally behind, and it could be just the impetus that other closeted athletes need to go public about their sexuality.
Collins is a 34-year-old veteran journeyman who just finished up his twelfth season in the NBA with his sixth different team, the Washington Wizards, and will become a free agent once the offseason starts. He has been a bench player for the majority of that time, and though his statistics don’t leap off the page, he is still a serviceable player who could be a key bench contributor to any team that signs him for next year.
Yet, all of these statistics and caveats are completely meaningless in the face of the bravery that Collins showed by coming out. While women’s sports have, for some time, been a safe realm for lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered athletes, men’s athletics have trailed behind when it comes to players feeling comfortable disclosing their sexuality. Just earlier this month, after she was made the first overall pick in the WNBA Draft, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, one of the most dominant college athletes of the decade, men’s or women’s, came out as gay to relatively little fanfare.
In men’s athletics, however, progress has been slow. Many athletes, like John Amaechi, Billy Bean, and Esera Tuaolo, have come out publicly, but only after retirement. Their hesitation to be openly gay is understandable when one remembers that we’re only a little over a decade removed from Mets catcher Mike Piazza calling a press conference to squash rumors that he was gay, six years removed from former NBA player Tim Hardaway declaring that he hated “gay people”, three months removed from San Francisco 49er Chris Culliver saying he wouldn’t welcome a gay teammate in the locker room. These are but a handful of the vitriolic comments that have been directed at gay athletes over the last few decades.
Even with such hateful instances in the past, the response from the sports world about Jason Collins’ coming out was proof that the time is finally right for gay athletes to be accepted in major American sports. Fellow NBA players like Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, John Wall, and other former teammates of his all voiced their support for his decision. President Obama called him on the phone. NBA Commissioner David Stern issued a statement saying the NBA was “proud” that he had taken a leadership role for LGBT athletes. Kobe Bryant, who just two years ago was fined for directing a homophobic slur at a referee during a game, but has since championed gay rights, also was effusive in his support for Collins, serving as one of the biggest reminders of how much the sports landscape has changed.
There are, still, unfortunately, voices of dissent. There are people who say that coming out in professional sports is not heroic, or that his career statistics render his importance in the sports world moot. The fact is that what Jason Collins did is indeed heroic, and it matters more than we may realize for some time. In coming out, he has showed LGBT athletes of every age that there is a place for them in sports, that they can be welcomed with open arms by families and by teammates and fans alike regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identification.
The only tacit acknowledgement that Collins made of his sexuality before coming out to SI was wearing the number 98 for the last two seasons as a tribute to Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was brutally murdered in 1998 because of his sexual orientation. It also serves as a reference to The Trevor Project, a crisis and suicide intervention organization which, along with other groups like the You Can Play project, seek to make the world safer for LGBT youth and athletes. In coming out, Jason Collins helped make the world a little bit safer for all LGBT people, and he will, in all likelihood, not be the last professional athlete to do so.