“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black and I’m gay,” begins Jason Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran, in this week’s Sports Illustrated cover story. Collins, a free agent who most recently played for the Washington Wizards, explained his path out of the closet and why he’s telling his story now in an SI’s issue devoted to the gay athlete.
Collins’s essay takes us through his decision as well as reaction from family members and close friends. “I realized I needed to go public when Massachusetts congressman Joe Kennedy, my old roommate at Stanford, told me he had just marched in Boston’s 2012 Gay Pride Parade,” he Collins writes. “I’m seldom jealous of others, but hearing what Joe had done filled me with envy.”
“I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, “me, too.”
Family members had mixed feelings about Collins's decision to go public. His twin brother, who had no inkling of Collin’s sexual orientation, responded positively. But his maternal grandmother was skeptical and afraid for her grandson’s well-bring. "She grew up in rural Louisiana and witnessed the horrors of segregation. During the civil rights movement she saw great bravery play out amid the ugliest side of humanity. She worries that I am opening myself up to prejudice and hatred. I explained to her that in a way, my coming out is preemptive. I shouldn’t have to live under the threat of being outed. The announcement should be mine to make, not TMZ’s,” Collins writes.
Whereas many professional female athletes have come out of the closet while active on their teams, no male player on a pro sports team had done so while still on the roster. A small handful, like the baseball player Billy Bean and the NBA journeyman John Amaechi, came out after retiring.
The NBA and marquee athletes from numerous sports took to Twitter with words of encouragement. “Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue,” the NBA stated. “Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don't suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others,” tweeted Kobe Bryant. Chris Kluwe, the Minnesota Vikings kicker and outspoken proponent of LGBT equality, tweeted, “Big kudos to @JasonCollins34. Living proof that your sexuality has nothing to do with your athletic ability.”
Orin Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke, felt that Collins’ candor is a “major milestone” for American culture. "Sports has long been a bastion of machismo and the values of old-school American male heterosexuality…Sports has been behind the rest of America in its lack of tolerance for gays and lesbians in the workplace. The announcement today may well foreshadow a cultural shift in the sports world, with other prominent athletes now feeling freer to acknowledge their identity.”
That’s the next test for Collins and for professional team sports. While Collins is an active player, he is not signed to a specific team. His announcement could weigh negatively on his chance of getting signed and potentially turn away fans (and judging from the adverse user comments on Sports Illustrated’s website, that’s a real possibility). But as John Amaechi told the Associated Press in 2007, when asked how people reacted to his coming out, he said he’d “underestimated America.” “In fact, 95 percent of the correspondence I've had have been overwhelmingly supportive and positive.” We’ll see if Jason Collins enjoys the same reaction.