American team sports has its first, openly gay pro athlete.
In an article he wrote for Sports Illustrated’s May 6th issue, NBA center Jason Collins has announced to the sporting world (and the world in general) that he is a gay man. In doing so, he has become the first openly homosexual male pro athlete in American team sports. It’s a moment that’s been anticipated by many, and feared by some, for years. Now that it has finally arrived, it’s not a stretch to say that what happens next could define, or redefine, the roles of sexuality, masculinity, acceptance and prejudice within American sports culture.
For many sports fans, the countdown clock to this day began six years ago, when retired NBA center John Amaechi came out. However, he was already out of the game, and because he was raised abroad and spoke with a refined British accent, his announcement resulted in little more than ripples through the sports world, instead of a wave of others following suit. There was a sense of “otherness” about him even before the announcement, which made it easier for the mainstream to keep moving along.
The waters were stirred again three years ago, when both SI and Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel profiled Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas a few weeks apart. Thomas, who made a name for himself as one of the most physical and punishing players on the Welsh national team, became the first international pro athlete in team sports to declare his homosexuality. Again, the sports fans and media in the United States took notice from afar, but no American athletes felt compelled to join him.
Now we have Collins, a seven-foot African American center from Southern California. In every way, he fits the mold of what we have come to expect from our pro basketball players.; huge, athletic, and known for his on-court work ethic and toughness. And yet, he is breaking the unspoken code of American team sports by revealing his sexual orientation to the world.
His piece in SI is clear, honest, unapologetic and revealing in the best ways. The 34-year-old Stanford product manages to share his story and maintain his privacy at the same time, taking steps to answer questions before they’re asked, and parry attacks before they can be launched. Most of all, he cleverly points out how many teams he has played for and teammates he’s had, all but crushing the plausibility of other basketball players who might want to claim they’ve never played with or against a gay man. It is now a fact.
In short, the article is the kind of empowering moment that should encourage other athletes to step up and share their stories too. With enough pros following Collins’ lead, the landscape of athletics could be changed forever. But will they?
This is where the business of sports comes into play. Collins is a free agent player, his Washington Wizards having failed to make the NBA Playoffs. He’s also a well-traveled journeyman, and so he’s exactly the type of player who would have been expected to latch on to a new team next year. The question is whether his admission will affect his playing future, and it is one that won’t be answered until mid-summer at the earliest. It will be telling to see whether other athletes with less of their careers behind them, and more to lose by joining Collins, will act now, or wait to see the results.
Regardless of who follows suit, if anyone, the conversation has shifted. It’s not a question of when. Now it’s a matter of who is next. The arguments are no longer hypothetical… they are now a matter of fact.