04.29.13

Meet Jason Collins, the First Gay Athlete in Major American Sports

The 12-year NBA veteran just became the first openly gay athlete from a major team sport. Who, exactly, is this trailblazer? A primer to the career of the man who just became one of the most important figures in sports.

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

With those three sentences, NBA player Jason Collins cements his status as one of the biggest trailblazers in sports history. Publicly coming out in an eloquently written Sports Illustrated story, the 12-year NBA veteran is now the first openly gay athlete actively playing a major American team sport. “I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different,’” he writes. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising hand.”

So who is this brave athlete, the first to raise his hand?

He’s “the pro’s pro,” a nickname he earned by being a committed team player. He’s known for taking charges and using his fouls—in other words sacrificing himself and being willing to go to the bench so his team’s star players can score. In the 2004–05 season, he led the NBA with 322 personal fouls. “I’m the guy on the court who doesn’t like to draw attention to himself, who wants to lead by example,” he has said. “I’ve just been a guy who’s accepted his role.”

Collins was drafted in the first round by the Houston Rockets in 2001, but sent to the New Jersey Nets in a draft-day deal. Prior to that, he was a star player at Stanford University. In fact, Collins’s coming out story is his second time on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He illustrated the magazine’s 2000 guide to March Madness. When he graduated, he was ranked first in school history for field-goal percentage and fifth in blocked shots.

It’s not just college where Collins shined, either. He played for the California prep school Harvard-Westlake, where, funnily enough, his backup was the actor Jason Segel. While there, he won two state titles and broke the California rebounding record, which had been in place for 31 years. He has a twin brother, Jarron, who followed him from Harvard-Westlake not only to Stanford, but also to the NBA. He was drafted by the Utah Jazz, and has played for the Phoenix Suns, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Portland Trailblazers.

Most of Jason Collins’s career was spent with the New Jersey Nets (now in Brooklyn). In his first two seasons with the team, the Nets reached the NBA finals, with him starting at center. In 2004, he signed a $25 million contract to stay in New Jersey for five more years. He was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies in 2007, the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2008, and the Atlanta Hawks in 2009, before landing with the Boston Celtics in 2012. After beginning this season in Boston, he was surprisingly included in a trade to the Washington Wizards, as part of a deal for the Celtics to score Jordan Crawford.

The 7-foot-tall center was a vital part of the Celtics’ bench. “I’ve sort of found my niche role in the league, as far as being a solid low-post defender, go out there, box, rebound, be physical and use all six of my fouls,” he said. “You can’t take ’em home with you.” In the 2006–07 season, for example, he committed 273 fouls, but scored just 169 points. “The stats aren’t pretty,” he said. “I do what I do out there.”

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Atlanta Hawks center Jason Collins, lower right, takes a shot during a 2010 playoff game against the Orlando Magic. (Reinhold Matay/AP)
“Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?”

The trade to the Wizards, however, moved him from vital status as a reserve to third-in-line on the Wizards’ bench. Now, he’s a free agent.

Collins says he first started contemplating coming out during the 2011 player lockout, with all of his downtime forcing him to confront who he really was. He decided to tell his aunt, who said she’d known “for years” that he was gay. “Some of use know and accept our sexuality right away and some need more time to cook,” he says.

The tragedy at the Boston Marathon is what ultimately led to his decision to come out now. “Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?” He’ll be marching in Boston’s 2013 Gay Pride Parade in June.

Throughout his career, Collins has played for six teams. As Collins says in his SI piece, “Ever heard of a parlor game called Three Degrees of Jason Collins? If you’re in the league, and I haven’t been your teammate, I surely have been one of your teammates’ teammates. Or one of your teammates’ teammates’ teammates.”

That means that there are a lot of NBA players having a personal reaction to the news today. With the notorious history of homophobia in sports—and the increasing amount of players and teams coming out as allies of the LGBT community—Collins’s coming out gives the whole conversation vital context, whether that conversation is being had in a professional locker room or among fans in the stands.

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Players react on Twitter to Collins coming out.

“Until you have that openly gay individual who is participating in sports that you can look to as a role model and a leader, that’s when hearts and minds change the most,” Hudson Taylor, executive director and founder of Athlete Ally, tells The Daily Beast. “It’s so critical in progressing the dialogue and shifting perceptions forward.”

Collins isn’t the first major athlete to come out of the closet. Martina Navratilova preceded him (Monday, she called Collins “a brave man. And a big man.”), as did John Amaechi, another NBA player who came out four years after he left the game in 2007. But he is the first from the Big Four sports leagues—NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL—to do while still active. While we are seeing a growing number of straight athletes coming out as allies and the major sports leagues ramping up their efforts to strengthen ties with the LGBT community—the NHL is partnering in a gay-rights initiative with the You Can Play Project and the NFL is meeting with gay-rights groups to open dialogue—the stigma over being gay in professional sports is hardly gone.

It was just February when San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver said, “I don’t do the gays…can’t be with that sweet stuff,” and former NBA star Tim Hardaway’s confident assertion, “I hate gay people…I am homophobic,” is hard to shake. “Fears and obstacles keeping athletes in the closet are becoming fewer and fewer,” says Taylor. But they still exist. “At the end of the day, the events that made Jason comfortable coming out may not be felt by every athlete. That’s why it’s so important to keep up the dialogue with sports leagues and educate. There has to be education.”

While Collins is a free agent now, he has ample opportunities. “I think corporations are aware of how monumental an out athlete is, especially at this time in our society,” Taylor says. Nike Chairman Phil Knight has previously said that sponsoring a gay athlete is a nonissue. When NBA team executive Rick Welts came out in 2011, he said that Nike told him that the first openly gay athlete would be endorsed by the company. “The player who does it, they’re going to be amazed at the opportunities that are put on the table, not the ones that are taken off,” he said.

While it’s still too early for Collins to know whether that’s true, he already has one major supporter. Former president Bill Clinton promptly released a statement Monday cheering on Collins, and revealing a surprising personal connection to the athlete. “I have known Jason Collins since he was Chelsea’s classmate and friend at Stanford,” Clinton says. “Jason’s announcement today is…the straightforward statement of a good man who wants no more than what so many of us seek: to be able to be who we are; to do our work; to build families and to contribute to communities.”

You may not have heard who Jason Collins was until Monday morning when his Sports Illustrated story was published. Or maybe you’re an NBA diehard who cheered every time he fouled one of his opponents. But the bravery and importance of his actions can’t be undersold. He will inspire countless LGBT teens wondering if they’d ever be able to be a successful athlete and open about who they are. He may change the minds of sports fans and athletes who thought they could never be supportive of a gay lifestyle. He will face intense backlash from those who don’t approve with his decision to come out. And Collins is aware of all of that.

“Some people insist they’ve never met a gay person. But Three Degrees of Jason Collins dictates that no NBA player can claim that anymore,” Collins said. “Pro basketball is a family. And pretty much every family I know has a brother, sister or cousin who’s gay. In the brotherhood of the NBA, I just happen to be the one who’s out.”