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 was also finalizing plans for an announcement that would send shockwaves 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.”
The first wave of public reaction to Collins’s announcement was overwhelmingly positive, with Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and former President Bill Clinton among those issuing public salutes to Collins’s 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.
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.
As recently as 2002, baseball star Mike Piazza felt compelled to call a news conference to refute rumors he was gay. In 2007, former NBA all-star guard Tim Hardaway said on a radio show, “I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it.” Even in 2011, the Lakers’ Bryant was fined $100,000 for using a homophobic slur in a rant against a referee.
Amid growing speculation that an active athlete would soon come out of the closet, the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball began preparing for the possibility.
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.”
In some regards, Collins may 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.
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.”