‘I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay." With that simple recitation of his vital statistics Jason Collins made civil rights history as the first openly gay male athlete in a major American sport. Collins' announcement was a brave one, even if the barrier he broke isn't the same thick wall of intolerance and misunderstanding that existed as recently as a decade ago. Still, it was heartwarming to see the tsunami of support for the 7-foot free agent, from President Barack Obama to league executives, former teammates and star athletes. The response to Collins' announcement tells others that America will judge them on their talent, not on their sexual orientation.
In his personal essay on Sports Illustrated's website, Collins said he did not intend to be the first gay professional athlete to come forward, but no one else did. He was tired of keeping this secret and staying quiet during debates on same-sex marriage. After 12 season in the NBA, Collins said he had "endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie." Now Collins will face other challenges more subtle than what happened when tennis star Billie Jean King was outed in 1981 and lost all her endorsements. He has made himself a symbol of gay equality in sports, and that makes him a potential target. It also makes him courageous.
Collins' decision to be open about his sexuality comes as promising signals are everywhere that a new acceptance is emerging in men's professional sports, one of the last institutions resistant to employing openly gay men now that the U.S. military no longer discriminates. Straight pro football players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo have been vocal supporters of gay rights. And a recent survey of hockey players on the Tampa Bay Lightning by Tampa Bay Times staff writer Damian Cristodero found all 22 players interviewed said they would be okay with an openly gay teammate. Nike, instead of ending Collins' sponsorship, said it is "proud that he is a Nike athlete."
For the last 30 years gay women athletes have been coming out of the closet, voluntarily or not, and it no longer raises a ruckus or shortens careers. But that freedom has not been granted to men. Before Collins, no one who expected to continue as an elite athlete in a major pro team sport had broken the unwritten rule to stay silent.
Even in a time when the country is far more accepting of gay citizens, Collins deserves the accolades he is receiving for breaking another barrier. His courageousness has been matched by the heartwarming response from the White House to NBA locker rooms.