I've been waiting for this day for years. When I was a high school and college athlete in the 1980s, I knew of no openly gay pro athletes to admire. Now we have Jason Collins, a 12-year veteran of the NBA.
Collins is not the first LGBT pro athlete, or the first Black gay athlete, or even the first Black male athlete to come out of the closet. Nor is he the first gay athlete of color. Those descriptions would ignore the legacy of men and women like Chris Dickerson, Sheryl Swoopes, John Amaechi, Wade Davis, Josh Dixon, Orlando Cruz, and future pro stars like Brittney Griner, all of whom preceded Collins. But Collins is the first openly gay male active player in a major team sport. That's an important and significant achievement for America's big four sports leagues — the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.
There were others, too. Years ago, when I came out in the early 1990s, I heard about a former Los Angeles Dodgers player named Glenn Burke, who was the first Black professional athlete to come out. I also discovered former New York Giants guard Roy Simmons, the first Black gay NFL player, who came out on the Phil Donahue Show in 1992. Both of them were trailblazers, but both came out after they had retired from professional sports. That's what makes Collins's decision to come out — on the cover of Sports Illustrated, no less — all the more remarkable.
Sports Illustrated was the same magazine in which former NBA star Dennis Rodman became the first active Black professional athlete to acknowledge a same-sex attraction in a 1995 article, where he said he had "fantasized" about being with another man after describing himself in his own memoir as "probably...bisexual." But Dennis Rodman, the man who once married himself in a dress, could also easily be dismissed by the public. Collins, on the other hand, is described by most accounts as a regular guy.
That regular-ness, or normalcy, is a major part of Collins's significance. The stories of early legendary Black gay athletes often took tragic turns. Glenn Burke died of AIDS in 1995. Roy Simmons became addicted to drugs after he retired. And openly gay British soccer star Justin Fashanu committed suicide in 1998. Collins doesn't appear to be on that path.
His beautiful coming out essay reminded me of the poetry in Frank Ocean's artful coming out letter last year. "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."
The Washington Wizards center also described how the strain of hiding his sexuality "became almost unbearable" when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on same-sex marriage. "Less then three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future," he wrote.
And Collins seems ready for the torrent and attention, adulation and criticism that will surely follow his disclosure. "As far as the reaction of fans, I don't mind if they heckle me," he wrote. "I've been booed before. There have been times when I've wanted to boo myself. But a lot of ill feelings can be cured by winning."
Those are the words of a well-adjusted man who seems to know himself and has weighed the advantages and disadvantages of coming out to an ambivalent sports world that still embraces much of the military's old "don't ask, don't tell" approach to sexuality. For every Brendon Ayanbadejo who openly embraces gay teammates with the Baltimore Ravens, there may be a Chris Culliver who complains about the possibility of playing with a gay teammate on the San Francisco 49ers squad.
But one person quietly speaking his truth can make a world of difference. When President Obama endorsed marriage equality last year, millions of African-Americans started to reconsider their own positions. Even athletes like Floyd Mayweather chimed in their support. So when Collins made his announcement today, it was reassuring to see Kobe Bryant and other pro athletes step in to praise him.
With one single but powerful word, Jason Collins has pushed professional sports to come to terms with gay athletes in their midst. Because of his courage, he will always be known as the first major pro sports athlete to come out of the closet, but he will not be the last. Courage is contagious. Others will surely follow.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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