“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay,” the first sentence, one that may go down as momentous as any written about sports before, reads. It is triumphant, a declaration the world of sports has been anticipating from someone — anyone — for months if not years. There have been gay pioneers in sports before — Billie Jean King was outed in 1981 and Martina Navritilova came out that same year — but in men’s sports, the only open athletes were those who had already finished their careers.
But behind the simple declaration that began the piece is a more telling story about where that movement still stands. Jason Collins was not open to any of the hundreds of men he’s called teammates, and he spent months debating the decision. In Washington, he wrote, he watched the Supreme Court debate the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, pained that he couldn’t speak openly about who he really was. By then he had determined he needed to be open, but he waited until after the season so as to keep his personal life from becoming a “distraction” for his team and his colleagues:
Loyalty to my team is the real reason I didn’t come out sooner. When I signed a free-agent contract with Boston last July, I decided to commit myself to the Celtics and not let my personal life become a distraction. When I was traded to the Wizards, the political significance of coming out sunk in. I was ready to open up to the press, but I had to wait until the season was over.
A free agent who has become a journeyman in recent years, Collins played just nine minutes per game in six appearances after being traded to the Wizards. Now in search of a new team, Collins used the piece not just to describe why he came out now — “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,’” he wrote — but also to let future teammates and perhaps executives know that he wouldn’t be gawking at them in the showers either:
I’ve been asked how other players will respond to my announcement. The simple answer is, I have no idea. I’m a pragmatist. I hope for the best, but plan for the worst. The biggest concern seems to be that gay players will behave unprofessionally in the locker room. Believe me, I’ve taken plenty of showers in 12 seasons. My behavior wasn’t an issue before, and it won’t be one now. My conduct won’t change. I still abide by the adage, “What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room.” I’m still a model of discretion.
This is the true shame of the in-the-closet culture of sexuality in sports, where athletes like Collins and Robbie Rogers, the soccer player who came out as gay and promptly retired in February, feel a tinge of selfishness and guilt when they finally open up about who they really are. In March, Rogers told the Guardian and the New York Times that he felt healthier since coming out; friends and former teammates told reporters that they had never seen him “more at ease.” Collins is no different: “I’m much happier since coming out to my friends and family. Being genuine and honest makes me happy,” he wrote.
Minutes after the story went live on Sports Illustrated’s site, Knicks guard Baron Davis — who never played with Collins but has played against him both in college and the NBA — tweeted that he was “so proud of my bro (Jason Collins) for being real. #FTheHaters.” The Wizards took the same view. “We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly,” team president Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement. The hope is that the rest of the NBA, including the executives and coaches who Collins will meet with to find a team and continue his NBA career this offseason, will see it the same way. Reality tells us that not all them will share Davis’ view, and that’s why athletes like Collins and Rogers have to spend so much time convincing themselves that being a gay player is something they not only are but that they deserve to be.
Perhaps that isn’t shocking. In team sports, the “distraction” label can be a career-killer for anyone, much less a 34-year-old center whose value has never shown up on a stat sheet. It’s only natural to avoid anything that could lead to that diagnosis, especially since Collins is still looking for a job. But sexuality isn’t a poor attitude, an outsized ego, or a flawed character trait that makes somebody like Jason Collins a bad teammate, a locker room cancer, or a distraction. It is a part of who Jason Collins is — part of who an untold number of American athletes, both male and female, are, and being open about it can only make them healthier and more focused on doing the job they are in sports to do. When those athletes no longer have to hide that, when they no longer feel the need to preemptively convince teammates that they won’t stare or coaches that they won’t distract, sports will have truly changed. We haven’t reached that point, but thanks to Jason Collins, we’re one major step closer.