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Jason Collins Comes Out

What will be the Effect of Collins’ Announcement that he is Gay?

By now you have probably heard that Jason Collins, a professional basketball player in the NBA, probably changed the face of the ‘Association’ for years to come. With twelve words Collins made it acceptable for gay athletes to reveal their sexual preference. There were others before him including Martina Navratilova, the great women’s tennis star, but no athlete has “come out” while active in any of the major team sports in the U.S. – basketball, baseball, football and hockey.

Collins, in an exclusive interview given to Sports Illustrated (SI) stated these words: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” Jason Collins, with the help of writer Franz Lidz, told the sports world two things it already knew and one that it didn’t, and in doing so has made history.

Jason Collins is not a superstar as was Magic Johnson when he publicly announced in November 1991 that he was HIV-positive. The announcement sent shock waves throughout the world of sports, in the U.S., and in countries far and wide. Many wondered how the sports world would react to the news. Back then many of us were ignorant about the virus, how it was transmitted, and the possible effects on others who came in contact with someone who was HIV-positive.

To understand how far we have come as a nation – evolved as a society – we need to examine the reaction to Magic’s announcement by the public and compare it to, thankfully, the world-wide acceptance of Collins’s announcement.

The day after his announcement, Johnson appeared on the late-night talk show of his friend, Arsenio Hall. There, he adamantly denied rumors that he was gay. The crowd cheered wildly, as if Johnson had just won another championship, or announced he’d been cured. What a difference twelve years makes, and with twelve short words Jason Collins has shown us our progress as a civilized nation.

Collins has bounced around the NBA for twelve years (there’s that ‘magic’ number again). He just finished the season playing for the Washington Wizards after being traded by the Boston Celtics. He is a free agent this summer, and is nearing the end of his years in the league, but he says he hopes to get picked up by another team next season. If he does, he may be the only openly gay player, but as he notes at the end of the SI piece, he will surely not be the only gay player: “Pro basketball is a family. And pretty much every family I know has a brother, sister or cousin who’s gay. In the brotherhood of the NBA, I just happen to be the one who’s out.”

The NBA league office issued a classy statement after the story broke in Sports Illustrated. The league offered a statement on its official Twitter account: “We have known the Collins family since Jason and Jarron (Jason’s brother) joined the NBA in 2001 and they have been exemplary members of the NBA family. Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue.” The series of tweets ends with the hashtag #NBAFamily.

As recently as 2007, the sports world, at least one member of it, reacted to a gay athlete coming out in an entirely different way. When the basketball center John Amaechi came out in 2007, three years after he had retired from the NBA, the former All-Star Tim Hardaway said, “First of all, I wouldn’t want him on my team. Second of all, if he was on my team I would really distance myself from him because I don’t think that’s right and I don’t think he should be in the locker room when we’re in the locker room.” Hardaway later apologized, and it is hard to imagine such comments being made or finding much public support today, but they surely hung over Collins’s announcement—and will continue to do so for other male athletes that follow his footsteps.

Gender matters as well. On Wednesday, April 17, Baylor University women’s basketball superstar, Brittney Griner, one of the best female basketball players on the planet, came out of the closet and few people even shrugged at the announcement.  Even though Griner’s announcement received relatively little press, her story is no less one of courage and pride. She is at the pinnacle of her sport; she was just selected No. 1 in the W.N.B.A. draft, and signed a high-profile endorsement deal with Nike. If Collins is a hero, then so is Brittney Griner.

For years I’ve blogged about the lack of role models in society including the sports world. Sports fans have been given two major jolts about their heroes the past few years. In baseball, the two biggest superstars of their era – Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens – allegedly used steroids. Regardless if they are or ever will be found guilty of the charges, most everyone knows they did use the performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Then we have the devastating case of Lance Armstrong who duped the public for many years while using PEDs; denying the charges’ claiming he was the victim of a vendetta against him; and otherwise lying over and over again about the truth of the matter.

So we finally have heroes to look up to. Not because of their statistics. Not because of their athletic talent. But because of their selfless act of admitting being gay and the classy way they handled the announcement. Kudos to Jason and Brittney for showing all of us what it means to have integrity and be a role model for all youth – not just the LGBT community.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 2, 2013