It’s no movie plot. No “what if?” No this-could-happen-down-the-road situation.
Monday morning Jason Collins started the day just as that—Jason Collins. Now, the NBA veteran is being hailed as a modern day Jackie Robinson. Collins is the first male in a major American team sport to come out.
Splashed across the cover of Sports Illustrated, “The Gay Athlete” sparked a media frenzy with his revelation. To think, just two weeks ago the Boston Marathon bombing brought a sports community together with acts and images of terror.
But Monday’s coming out was spurred partly by the bombings, Collins wrote, and was one of courage and confidence. An historic first. His first-person article on SI.com began simply: “I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.”
In just one hour, Collins gained some 10,000 Twitter followers. And as his name topped Twitter’s trending list for much of the afternoon, the support poured in around the web. Kobe Bryant, NBA commissioner David Stern, and President Bill Clinton sounded off with support, mirroring a sports and media world that seemed to welcome the long-awaited revelation with open arms.
So, too, was the waiting public. As a gay writer who works in sports, I can’t tell you how many times friends and colleagues have asked me when it’s going to happen in a major sport. My response? “Be patient.”
The response of the greater public was just what I was hoping for.
“Proud of @jasoncollins34,” Bryant tweeted. “Don't suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others #courage #support #mambaarmystandup #BYOU.”
Chelsea Clinton joined her father in tweeting support to Collins, whom she had attended Stanford with early last decade. President Clinton wrote he was “proud” to call Collins a friend.
“For so many members of the LGBT community, simple [everyday] goals remain elusive,” President Clinton wrote on his foundation’s website. “I hope that everyone, particularly Jason's colleagues in the NBA, the media and his many fans extend to him their support and the respect he has earned.”
The White House, in a statement via spokesman Jay Carney, said it supported Collins’s move.
"I can tell you that here at the White House, we view that as another example of the progress that has been made and the evolution that has been taking place in this country,” Carney said during a news briefing. “We commend him in his courage and support him in this effort. We hope that his fans and his team support him moving forward."
Collins is in fact a free agent, meaning he is not signed to a particular team as of now. He played this last season for the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics.
Andy Cohen, a programming executive at Bravo—and an outspoken member of the gay community—tweeted a “mazel” to Collins, then linked to an interview with NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had appeared on Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live! Sunday night.
When asked on the show if there would ever be an out star in the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar had this to say:
“I would think the way things are going now, the way that gay people are able to profess who they are, that will just be a natural evolution."
Actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as well as already-out women’s soccer star Abby Wambach voiced their support. Martina Navratilova, the tennis star who’s been out for 30 years, called Collins an “activist.”
Gay Hollywood regulars like Ellen DeGeneres and Lance Bass also spoke out, as did Jon Amaechi, who came out in 2007 after retiring from years in the NBA.
Calls had mounted for a major sports team player to come out—an NBA, NFL, NHL, or MLB athlete. Anyone, really. Brittney Griner, the first pick in this year’s WNBA draft, came out in an interview just shy of two weeks ago to little fanfare.
Robbie Rogers, a pro soccer star, created a mini firestorm in February when he came out. But the 25-year-old American announced his retirement from the sport at the same time, writing that he wanted to “explore himself away from football.”
After Rogers’s revelation, rumors circulated earlier this month that a group of NFL players may come out together, lessening the media attention on one person. Those reports turned out to be false.
But with the coming out of Rogers there was a growing sense that it was all about timing. There are more gay athletes in pro sports—in football and baseball and tennis and figure skating—but for someone of Collins’s pedigree to come out is unheralded.
Darren Rovell, a contributor for CNBC, said Monday that there are advertisers and companies that may not have known Collins’s name before his announcement and now could possibly be seeking out the seasoned veteran.
That reaction shows how the landscape has shifted in the time since Navratilova came out. The tennis legend, still arguably the most high-profile gay athlete, lost sponsors and endorsements three decades ago.
Collins, in his story on SI.com, didn’t seem to be overly concerned with the attention. His cool approach made the blockbuster news feel, well, somewhat normal. Just like the gay community hopes the “coming out” process might morph into in the future. For now, however, it’s OK that these headlines are headlines: We’re still in a place where high-profile people need to make a proclamation of who they are. They are role models, for better or for worse. This is the better part.
“I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation.”
Safe to say, conversation started. In fact, hopefully continued. And hopefully it can’t be stopped.