Jason Collins shatters barriers, advances society, discussion

Jason Collins broke one of the few remaining barriers for gays and lesbians in an era of growing public acceptance, but his decision could open a new era for generations of young athletes.

Collins changed everything recently by simply telling the truth: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

With the Sports Illustrated story hitting news stands May 6, Collins becomes the first active male athlete in any of the four major American professional team sports to announce he is gay.

Collins had remained closeted about his homosexuality for all of his 12 seasons in the NBA while playing for six teams – most recently with the Washington Wizards. He even kept the secret from his twin brother, who played alongside him in college at Stanford, and said he was surprised this past year when he finally found out.

Why? In spite of changing attitudes in society about sexuality, homophobia remains deeply embedded in sports culture, which values traits traditionally associated with masculinity.

Wade Davis, a former National Football League player, so feared the reaction of teammates and former teammates that he waited until eight years after his last game before disclosing that he is gay.

The issue of gay players in professional sports became a matter of heated debate last fall after San Francisco 49ers player Chris Culliver said in an interview that he would not welcome gay players in the NFL or on his team.

Yet rumors have been rampant in recent weeks that an NFL player may soon come out of the closet. Baltimore Ravens’ Brendon Ayanbadejo, a renowned advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, told USA Today in March that he thinks a baseball player will come out sooner than a football star in the world of professional male sports.

The reaction to Collins’ news was swift – and generally supportive.

Players, such as Lakers great Kobe Bryant, raced to jump on Twitter to show support for Collins, writing “Dont suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others,” followed by the words “courage” and “support.”

NBA legend Magic Johnson, whose own son has recently announced he was gay, also said he supported Collins and hoped others would follow.

Commissioner David Stern credited Collins with assuming a “leadership mantle on this very important issue.”

President Obama called Collins and told the Washington Wizards center that was “impressed by his courage,” according to a White House Twitter post.

“I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted,” Collins writes in his SI story. “And yet we still have so much farther to go. Everyone is terrified of the unknown, but most of us don’t want to return to a time when minorities were openly discriminated against.”

As important as Collins’ announcement is for professional sports, our hope is that it translates to acceptance of LBGT athletes of all levels, particularly young people.

In a recent column for Huffington Post, Patrick Burke, president of the You Can Play project to end homophobia in sports, reminds readers that it is athletes most in need of outreach and support who are least likely to receive it.

“Here’s a thought,” he wrote. “There’s a good chance that an athlete who would have been willing to be an openly gay professional quit when he was a teenager due to intimidation and fear.”

Collins is currently a free agent, but has stated he wants to continue his NBA career next season, and given the publicity around his announcement, we expect a team will find a spot for him.

That’s great. No athlete should be denied a chance to play for simply being true to themselves.