The Human Triumph of the NBA's First Openly Gay Player

Jason Collins's coming out is a great thing for sports, but it's also a great thing for him.
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Sports Illustrated

Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) and Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic) discuss NBA player Jason Collins's announcement that he's gay.


This is how progress happens, how breaking down sociological barriers happens. One brave person steps forward, others follow, and widespread social acceptance follows after that. Today, that person is NBA veteran Jason Collins, who revealed he is gay in a first-person essay in Sports Illustrated.

Collins is not the first athlete to come out—just two weeks ago, women's basketball superstar Brittney Griner said she was a lesbian and talked at length about her homosexuality. But Collins is the first active member of one of the four major men's professional sports to publicly come out, and as he said in his essay, he doesn't plan on retiring anytime soon.

In many ways, Collins is an ideal choice to be the first gay man to come out and keep returning to the locker rooms of a professional sports team. An imposing figure—Collins comes in at seven feet, 265 pounds—the veteran center is unlikely to face significant verbal harassment from the rest of the league. (Preemptive note to all homophobic athletes out there: You don't want to be the guy who gets your ass kicked for your bigotry, it won't look very good on your CV.) And basketball has been a leader of sorts on openly homosexual athletes. In addition to Griner and now Collins, former NBA power forward John Amaechi came out in 2007 after he retired.

Collins is a back-of-the-rotation basketball player who only played 38 games this season for the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, and it remains to be seen which team will sign him (and the attendant publicity) in the offseason. But someone will—if not because they're architects of social change, then because seven-foot centers are a valuable defense/rebounding commodity in the NBA. Sometime next season, somewhere in the NBA, Collins will take the court as an openly gay professional basketball player.

There will undoubtedly be negative reactions from homophobic fans and players alike. But the tide of public opinion has inexorably shifted against the bigots. When the 49ers' Chris Culliver went on a homophobic rant before the Super Bowl, the condemnation was swift and universal (and as Culliver's recent Instragram post shows, bigots are bigots across the board). If Collins's coming-out party is a success—and it will be—other active athletes will follow, and not just in the NBA.

Guys, this is a great day for equality in sports. What are your thoughts?

–Jake


How freaking great is this?

Normally I'm fairly annoyed by conversations about sports when they don't have any actual sports in them. But Collins's choice is so exciting and important—so utterly fantastic and brave—that I'm practically giddy about it. It's doubtful that Collins's number will be retired by every NBA team like the number 42 is in baseball. And, certainly, comparisons of issues of race, gender, and sexuality are always problematic. Nevertheless, this moment has a Jackie Robinson-ish feel.

Right now, across this country and around the world, millions of young people are confused about their sexuality. Some may even feel hopeless enough to be suicidal. With this choice, Jason Collins has spoken to them. He, quite simply, may have saved lives today. He damn sure gave hope to millions, showing that it's possible—no matter who you love—to lead a rich, fulfilling, successful, honest, and open life.

After the frenzy of publicity dies down, the only thing that will matter about Collins is how he performs on the court. Period. End of story. That's the real beauty of it.

Yeah, maybe Collins will get some bad vibes in the locker room or on the court. My guess, though, is that the negative responses will be vastly outweighed by the good ones. My guess is that NBA players, coaches, and front-office people will offer Collins their acceptance and support. Some will be gay, sure. Many will be straight, but have gay friends or family. Some will simply love freedom.

We also know that whatever team signs Collins will see a little blip of protest. A few season-ticket holders might even be jerks and choose not to renew. Rest assured, they will be replaced—and far outnumbered—by new fans showing their support for whatever club gives him a contract.

Then, in a year or so, an even better thing will happen. No one will care who Collins sleeps with. After the frenzy of publicity dies down, the only thing that will matter about him is how he performs on the court. Period. End of story. That's the real beauty of it.

Gay, straight, bisexual, or whatever, this is a great day for anyone who believes in liberty. And it's a proud day for anyone who believes in the power of sports to change lives. Patrick, as our resident Wizards' fan, give us your take on the big news.

–Hampton


As a Washington Wizards fan, I couldn't care less. As a human being, I couldn't care more. This is a really big deal—and as you smartly note, someday it won't be. Which is exactly why it's a really big deal.

The closeting of human identity is the closeting of human potential. It makes all of us poorer in the end.

Look, bigotry will never die. Collins's courageous gesture won't kill it. Racism, homophobia, sexism, tribalism, intolerance, cruelty, hatred, fear, insecurity, ostracizing of the dreaded other: all are enduring aspects of human existence, of our collective character. Then again, so are kindness and empathy. And those qualities are our saving grace. They allow us to overcome our worst instincts, our insistence on dividing the world into us and them. They allow us to accept teammates who look, act and believe differently. They allow us to accept teammates who aren't even teammates. They allow us to see one another for who we really are, as individuals, flawed and sublime and deserving of respect. Of basic human dignity. Of love.

I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay. With three wonderfully simple sentences, Collins has taken a progressive baton from Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Dave Kopay, Gareth Thomas, David Testo, Amaechi, Griner and so many others; like them, he has made it incrementally easier for gay athletes to be who they are, fully and publicly, without shame or fear or shunning; like them, he has done everyone—gay and straight, accepting and not-so-much—a tremendous service, because the closeting of human identity is the closeting of human potential. It makes all of us poorer in the end. Consider this from Collins's remarkable first-person essay in Sports Illustrated:

The first relative I came out to was my aunt Teri, a superior court judge in San Francisco. Her reaction surprised me. "I've known you were gay for years," she said. From that moment on I was comfortable in my own skin. In her presence I ignored my censor button for the first time. She gave me support. The relief I felt was a sweet release. Imagine you're in the oven, baking. Some of us know and accept our sexuality right away and some need more time to cook. I should know—I baked for 33 years.

When I was younger I dated women. I even got engaged. I thought I had to live a certain way. I thought I needed to marry a woman and raise kids with her. I kept telling myself the sky was red, but I always knew it was blue.

Put yourself in Collins's shoes. It's not hard. Anyone who has ever been afraid of rejection—which is to say, everyone—can relate. Sexuality is irrelevant. Sooner or later, we all bake. Imagine the lack of joy, the sheer, inescapable loneliness, a lifetime seeking support with a finger planted on the censor button, wondering if anyone will embrace you for being, you know, you. Now realize how utterly unnecessary all of that should be. How unnecessary all of that actually is. Sports can be hugely symbolic, but in this case, sports is a small part of the larger picture. We have a short time on this planet. Life is hard enough, in ways great and small. Why make it harder for each other? Roger Ebert once said that "to make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts." He was right. For 34 years, Collins missed out on the world in a very real way. This was a crime. For 34 years, the world missed out on Collins. This was a crime, too.

I'm happy that's over. I'm happy Collins gets to be himself and be loved exactly for that. I hope his story helps others do the same. In 1938, researchers began a study that followed 268 Harvard undergraduate men for 75 years, measuring everything from personality type to IQ to drinking habits to family relationships, all to determine what factors contribute most strongly to human flourishing; recently, longtime director George Valiant published a summation of the study's insights. The key takeaway, according to Valiant? "The 75 years and $25 million expended on the Grant Study points ... to a straightforward five-word conclusion: happiness is love. Full stop." Jason Collins is a 34-year-old NBA center. He's black. He's gay. Starting today, he is as free to pursue happiness as the rest of us. Full stop.

–Patrick

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