In a widely discussed article posted yesterday on the Sports Illustrated website and published in the May 6 edition of the magazine, professional athlete Jason Collins declared, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
We interrupt this column for other breaking-news developments: The world did not come to an end yesterday, and the sun rose in the east and set in the west. Also, we’re reliably informed by our sources at the Federal Aviation Administration that all airliners departing from U.S. airports landed safely at their destinations. And, closer to home, Fido bit a mailman on Main Street. Back to you, Sam, for more details on the not-so-shocking story about the gay basketball player.
Had Collins’s admission occurred at almost any other point in our nation’s collective past psyche—say a decade or even a year ago—it might have been a shocking, even frightening moment. But it didn’t, and so it wasn’t.
Sports fans and social observers knew it was only a matter of time before the first professional male athlete jumped out of the closet while still wearing a team uniform. Now that it has happened, however, it feels oddly anticlimactic. No shouts or curses, only cheers and the proud affirmation that something that loomed so fearsome over our cultural landscape could be, in the end, not nearly as disruptive as it appeared just a few years earlier.
In a justice-is-served way, that’s how it should be. Collins isn’t a high-profile basketball player. He’s not flashy. Outside of those who closely follow the game, he might even be considered invisible. He has played for six teams over his 12-year career, averaging a lackluster 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. Collins doesn’t enter into fantasy-sports conversations.
Yet his fame and fortune as a pro baller is about to change forever. If sports in America are a bellwether for change in our society, Collins is about to add his face to the pantheon of athletic heroes who push us toward our better selves.
Of course, some folks disagree. ESPN’s NBA analyst Chris Broussard, for example, condemned Collins as “openly living in unrepentant sin” in a broadcast yesterday that discussed the announcement.
To be sure, the acid test of Collins’s disclosure will come over time in fan reactions to seeing an openly gay male basketball player. But if the immediate and overwhelming public reaction is a clue, Collins has little to fear and a league full of cheering supporters. ESPN.com reported the social-media world was quick to latch onto Collins, as his Twitter account picked up more followers in the hour after Sports Illustrated posted his story than in his previous 430 days on the site. His followers jumped from 3,700 to more than 9,000 in that hour, and @jasoncollins34 now has more than 89,000 followers a day later.
Fellow Washington Wizard Emeka Okafor told The New York Times that Collins is a great teammate and nothing has changed. “He’s the same guy,” Okafor said. “He’s just let us know more about him.” Other players, including stars such as the Los Angeles Lakers’s Kobe Bryant and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant posted tweets praising Collins’s courage.
Even President Barack Obama, who admitted to evolving toward supporting marriage equality last year during his presidential re-election campaign, called Collins to personally say that he was “impressed” by his willingness to live and play basketball out of the closet.
Collins wants to continue to play and will seek to sign with a team when his current contract with the Washington Wizards expires July 1. NBA officials say it’s likely he’ll be in uniform because teammates, coaches, and team owners will be far less concerned about what he does off the court and quite eager to have his 7-foot, 255-pound frame snaring rebounds and clogging the lane.
Unlike other gay men who have played professional sports, Collins didn’t wait until retirement to make his sexual orientation public. In 2007 former NBA veteran player John Amaechi became the first professional basketball player to say he was gay but did so four years after retiring from the sport. Amaechi praised Collins’s disclosure but called it “a nonissue” because the public is far more tolerant now than ever before.
“This is a positive,” Amaechi said in a video post on the sports-related blog BleacherReport.com. “When there is this tipping point and there are enough people coming together, deciding that change is necessary, that’s when it happens. I’m hopeful that Jason will be a catalyst in this process, more so than anyone who’s come before him.”
For those who keep track of such things, Collins’s announcement is significant only because he’s the first openly gay male athlete who is an active player on a professional sports team. Surely, that will make him the Jackie Robinson of the LGBT community—something that Collins seemed to welcome, albeit reluctantly, in the Sport Illustrated article.
“I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore,” he said in the article. “I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, ‘Me, too.’”
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.