Jason Collins is not the first gay male professional athlete, just the first to make history by coming out of the closet while active in a major team sport. This incredible development continues the remarkable momentum in our march for equality. Well, forget march – at this point it’s feeling more like an all out sprint towards freedom’s finish line.
What Collins did was help end the grand illusion that sports are a straights-only club. In reality, for as long as there have been competitive games, there have been gay players on courts and fields. However, the steep price for participating in the sport they love, often meant giving up the potential for love. These individuals were forced into playing rigid straight roles, at an alarming cost to their mental health.
For example, I’ll never forget that evening at The Stud when I was a college summer intern in San Francisco in the early 1990’s. Inside the bar stood an NBA player over seven feet tall. He was not a major star, but a solid player who was respected throughout the league for his toughness, much like Jason Collins.
As an avid basketball fan, I recognized the huge athlete and stared in amazement. Realizing he had been spotted, the player shot me a look that showed that he was terrified. It was both a warning to leave him alone and a tacit acknowledgement that this powerful giant could be bought to his knees with one anonymous letter to his employer or the media. The look was one that countless gay men and women have given when their secret is exposed and they are vulnerable.
Collins’ acknowledged the steep psychological toll he faced in Sports Illustrated:
“No one wants to live in fear. I’ve always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don’t sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I’ve endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time.”
Collins’ remarks are eerily similar to those offered by former professional soccer player, Robbie Rogers, who came out in February, but promptly (and unfortunately) retired in his prime:
“Life is so full of amazing things. I realized I could only truly enjoy my life once I was honest. Honesty is a [expletive] but makes life so simple and clear. My secret is gone, I am a free man, I can move on and live my life as my creator intended.”
Of course, in some respects this will not be an easy road for Collins. He is in between NBA contracts and almost 34 years old – so it would be easy for teams to pass on signing him because he is gay, while justifying their decision by blaming his age. There will also be homophobic knuckleheads and religious zealots in the league who will either shun or harass Collins. (Although given that he is 7’0, 250 pounds, most of the derogatory statements likely will occur behind his back). Additionally, there will be bigoted fans that taunt him during games.
Such small-minded attitudes were already on full display. Liberty Counsel’s perpetually immature Matt Barber tweeted:
“When will the first brave athlete ‘come out’ that he & his mother hook up? We need role models for incestuous kids! Courage!”
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace tweeted:
“All these beautiful women in the world and guys want to mess with other guys…” (According to Miami Herald reporter Steve Rothaus, he has since apologized, as have the Miami Dolphins)
Second-rate ESPN analyst Chris Broussard attacked Collins (who is a Christian) and justified his bile by invoking a backward version of Christianity:
“If you’re openly living that type of lifestyle…I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and Jesus Christ.”
Fortunately, times are rapidly changing and so far Collins’ announcement has been met with more cheers than jeers. White House press secretary Jay Carney said that Collins is an example of “the progress that has been made and the evolution that has been taking place in this country.”
Former President Bill Clinton said, “Jason’s announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT community.” He has also received support from NBA notables such as the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, as well as Dallas Maverick’s owner Mark Cuban.
While I’m sure that Collins would be happy to play for the Lakers or Mavericks next year, a team more appropriately named to honor his bravery would be the Portland Trailblazers.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”