Jason Collins is the first active male athlete in one of the four major North American sports to announce he is gay. When you see it in writing or say it aloud, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. Remember though, none of the thousands of baseball, basketball, football, or hockey players had ever come out before. It’s a big deal.
That is not to undermine the other gay athletes who have paved the way. Collins acknowledged as much in his thoughtful essay in Sports Illustrated this week. Collins, since he is still in the league, has taken it a step further. Others will follow his lead. A gay friend told me she applauds Collins’ courage but looks forward to the day when an athlete coming out is not a news item at all.
Those questioning Collins’ motives are, at best, overly cynical. This is not a publicity stunt, nor is it a carefully crafted plan to extend his basketball career. If no NBA team wants him next season, he won’t sue the league for discrimination. He says he doesn’t even plan to write a book. Why did Collins come out now, near the tail end of his career? How is that a fair question? Straight people never have to think about when to come out as straight. As an invisible minority, Collins could have gone his whole life without publicly revealing his sexual orientation.
That he came out at all is a landmark event. Sports, like the rest of society, are becoming more tolerant. But we’re just a month removed from that disturbing Mike Rice video where he “motivates” his players with words like “fairies” and “f******.” Collins has probably heard a coach or teammate use those words. So have other closeted athletes. Maybe Collins’ announcement will encourage others to come out. That would be fine, but the bigger potential impact is how the rest of us handle this. More accepting coaches and teammates would make for a safer environment for gay players. There is now a face everyone can associate with a gay athlete.
This is worth celebrating. Collins is a pioneer whose name will not be lost to history. Let’s just not pat ourselves on the back yet. You might be cool with this, but what about your neighbor? Let’s see how his teammates deal with an openly gay player in the locker room; how opposing fans treat him.
Collins can be a voice, but he shouldn’t have to become a symbol. His essay suggests he will be active in the gay rights movement—at the very least, we know he plans to march in Boston’s Gay Pride Parade in June—but if he returns to obscurity that is OK, too. He has done his part. It’s time for us to do ours.