by Dave Zirin / @EdgeofSports
In a bombshell that’s as historic as anything the L has seen since Earl Lloyd became the first African American player to suit up in the NBA, 34-year-old center Jason Collins has come out of the closet. This is of course bigger than the NBA. Collins is now the first active player in a major American sports league to be out of the closet. Writing in a first-person piece, with Frank Lidz, for Sports Illustrated, Collins said, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay. I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. 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 piece has sent shockwaves well beyond the world of sports. The locker room has always been a safe haven of homophobia but recently, the generational changes in our society off the field of play have started to be felt. First in the NFL, players like Brendon Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe and Scott Fujita have become active and public participants for full marriage equality and equal rights. Ayanbadejo even announced that there were four players he knew just waiting for the right time to come out. The National Hockey League recently adopted an entire program alongside the You Can Play organization aimed at making the locker room a “safe space” for players thinking about coming out of the closet. Then Brittney Griner, who may prove to the most dominant women’s hoops player ever, spoke casually about being part of the LGBT community. She did it so smoothly, it was a question about whether she was even “coming out of the closet” since that implies she was once “in.”
Now we have Jason Collins and it’s already clear he will have allies. Immediately after the article posted came this tweet from the great Baron Davis, who wrote, “I am so proud of my bro @jasoncollins34 for being real. #FTheHaters.” Kobe Bryant and many other pro athletes quickly followed with supportive comments.
Collins’ coming-out story is very powerful. He talks about how the bombing of the Boston Marathon “reinforced the notion that I shouldn’t wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect. Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?….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. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back.”
One of the people who has Jason’s back is his twin, slightly younger brother Jarron, who also followed Jason to Stanford and the NBA. As Jason wrote, Jarron was shocked to learn his “big brother” was gay but after they talked, “For the first time in our lives, he wanted to step in and protect me.”
The question now, however, that Collins is an active, out player, is if he will have the chance to play. As Collins wrote, “Now I’m a free agent, literally and figuratively. 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.”
As of this writing, Celtics coach Doc Rivers has stated that he wants the 7-0 journeyman back on his height-starved team. But Doc is not the Celtics GM. It will certainly be interesting to see if team boss Danny Ainge, a Mormon bishop, will bring Collins back. Here’s hoping he does. His team, the League and our society will be better for it.