Tuesday, April 30, 2013
As Jason Collins, a 7-foot journeyman center for the Washington Wizards, played out the final few weeks of his 12th NBA season this spring, he also was finalizing plans for an announcement that would send shock waves across the world of sports. That announcement came late Monday morning, with the Internet publication of a first-person story in Sports Illustrated:
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center,” the story began. “I’m black. And I’m gay.”
With that, Collins became the first active male athlete in a major U.S. professional sports league to come out of the closet — a designation that is certain to elevate this relatively anonymous player, known primarily for his ability to commit fouls and set picks, into a historic figure in both the sports and gay rights realms.
“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport,” Collins wrote. “But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Hours after Collins disclosed his sexuality, President Barack Obama reached out by phone, expressing his support and telling Collins he was impressed by his courage.
Former President Clinton was among many who issued public salutes to Collins’ move.
“Jason’s announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT community,” said the statement from Clinton, who got to know Collins when the latter was a Stanford classmate of Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea. “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.”
Until recent years, the notion of an openly gay male athlete was thought to be a near impossibility in major U.S. professional sports, where the testosterone-fueled culture of the locker room often bordered on homophobia.
While celebrated female athletes such as Martina Navratilova and Sheryl Swoopes were comfortably out of the closet during their careers, no active male athlete could afford to take a similar step.
Wizards guard Bradley Beal expressed support for his teammate, though he said Collins’ announcement came as “a shock to me and probably to everyone else as well, because you would never think that, that him being the guy he is, that he would be that way.”
Beal added, “Hopefully, somebody gives him an opportunity to play the game, because that’s what we’re all here for. We all love to play the game. We’re all doing something we love. And his sexual orientation has nothing do with the game of basketball. I’m supportive of him and I’m happy he’s able to be the first to do it.”
Another teammate, Garrett Temple, said he, too, was “shocked, surprised” to learn of the announcement.
“I’m straight. I know what I am as a person, I know my sexuality. So I’m not worried about that,” the veteran guard said. “I think the reason it would be a problem is if other players make it a problem. Unless guys continue to harp on it, make jokes on it, try to alienate the guy. Jason is a great teammate. He’s a pros’ pro, so I don’t think it would be a problem.”
Collins, who split this season between the Boston Celtics and the Wizards, will become a free agent July 1. He intends to pursue another contract in the summer, which might serve as a test for how NBA teams respond to the announcement.
In his essay, Collins alludes to the situation, writing: “I’ve reached that enviable state in life in which I can do pretty much what I want. And what I want is to continue to play basketball. I still love the game, and I still have something to offer. My coaches and teammates recognize that. At the same time, I want to be genuine and authentic and truthful.”
In some regards, Collins might be the perfect athlete to break this barrier. As a fringe player in his sport who is nearing the end of his career, he has little social capital — in the way of commercial endorsements and job security — to risk, and he became a far more important figure in his sport by coming out of the closet than he ever was in it.
Collins came to the Wizards on Feb. 21 via a trade with the Celtics.
He played in only six games for the team in March and April, scoring a total of only four points, with eight rebounds and 11 personal fouls.
According to an accompanying story by an SI editor about how Collins’ story came together, Collins’ agent first contacted the magazine for a possible collaboration in early April.
The story appeared 12 days after the conclusion of the Wizards’ season, at which point Collins became a free agent.
During his time with the Wizards, he explained his unusual uniform number — 98 — as being designed to make life difficult for the referees who signal uniform numbers to the scorer’s table when calling fouls.
But in his SI article, Collins explained the real reason for his choice of 98: as a tribute to Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was tortured and murdered in 1998 in one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in recent history.
“When I put on my jersey,” he wrote, “I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends.”