As Jason Collins, a 7-foot journeyman center for the Washington Wizards, played out the final few weeks of his 12th NBA season this spring, he was also finalizing plans for an announcement that would send shockwaves across the world of sports. That announcement came late Monday morning, with the Internet publication of a first-person story in Sports Illustrated:
Im a 34-year-old NBA center, the story began. Im black. And Im gay.
With that, Collins became the first active male athlete in a major U.S. professional sports league to come out of the closet a designation that is certain to elevate this relatively anonymous player, known primarily for his ability to commit fouls and set picks, into a historic figure in both the sports and gay rights realms.
I didnt set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport, Collins wrote. But since I am, Im happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasnt the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, Im different. If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why Im raising my hand.
The first wave of public reaction to Collins announcement was overwhelmingly positive, with Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, former NFL star and current daytime TV talk host Michael Strahan and former President Bill Clinton among those issuing public salutes to Collinss move.
Jasons announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT community, said the statement from Clinton, who got to know Collins when the latter was a Stanford classmate of Clintons daughter, Chelsea. I hope that everyone, particularly Jasons colleagues in the NBA, the media and his many fans extend to him their support and the respect he has earned.
The time has come, tweeted two-time NBA most valuable player Steve Nash. Maximum respect.
Until recent years, the notion of an openly gay male athlete was thought to be a near-impossibility in major U.S. professional sports, where the testosterone-fueled culture of the locker room often bordered on homophobia. While celebrated female athletes such as Martina Navratilova and Sheryl Swoopes were comfortably out of the closet during their careers, no active male athlete could afford to take a similar step.
As recently as 2002, baseball star Mike Piazza felt compelled to call a news conference to refute rumors he was gay. In 2007, former NBA all-star guard Tim Hardaway said on a radio show, I dont like gay people and I dont like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I dont like it. It shouldnt be in the world or in the United States. Even in 2011, the Lakers Bryant was fined $100,000 for using a homophobic slur in a rant against a referee.
But in recent months, the widespread gains in acceptance towards gays in American society as a whole began to trickle down to one of the last frontiers of intolerance the major U.S. sports leagues. Amid growing speculation that an active athlete would soon come out of the closet, the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball began preparing for the possibility. The NHL, for example, partnered with the You Can Play Project an advocacy group for gay youth athletes to begin counseling and training personnel for the eventuality.
Wizards guard Bradley Beal expressed support for his teammate, though he said Collinss announcement came as a shock to me and probably to everyone else as well, because you would never think that, that him being the guy he is, that he would be that way.
Beal added, Hopefully, somebody gives him an opportunity to play the game, because thats what were all here for. We all love to play the game. Were all doing something we love. And his sexual orientation has nothing do with the game of basketball. Im supportive of him and Im happy hes able to be the first to do it.
In some regards, Collins may be the perfect athlete to break this barrier. As a fringe player in his sport who is nearing the end of his career, he has little social capital in the way of commercial endorsements and job security to risk, and he became a far more important figure in his sport by coming out of the closet than he ever was in it.
The advocacy group Human Rights Campaign went so far as to equate Collins with Jackie Robinson, who broke baseballs color barrier in 1947 and is the subject of a current biopic.
At a time when millions are reflecting on the life and legacy of Jackie Robinson, the group said in a statement, Jason Collins is a hero for our own times.
Collins came to the Wizards on Feb. 21 via a trade with the Boston Celtics. He played in only six games for the team in March and April, scoring a total of only four points, with eight rebounds and 11 personal fouls. According to an accompanying story by an SI editor about how Collinss story came together, Collinss agent first contacted the magazine for a possible collaboration in early April. The story appeared 12 days after the conclusion of the Wizards season, at which point Collins became a free agent.
During his time with the Wizards, he explained his unusual uniform number 98 as being designed to make life difficult for the referees who signal uniform numbers to the scorers table when calling fouls. But in his SI article, Collins explained the real reason for his choice of 98: as a tribute to Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was tortured and murdered in 1998 in one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in recent history.
When I put on my jersey, he wrote, I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends.