Last year, center Jason Collins was by, some basketball metrics, one of the worst players in the National Basketball Association. He was benched for 24 of the final 29 games of the season after the Washington Wizards acquired him. A free agent, he was not expected to find a new employer and would probably retire. Then he came out of the closet as North America’s first openly gay athlete in a team sport. Now this fading athlete is being championed as a hero and compared to Jackie Robinson who broke the colour barrier in baseball in 1947. It is likely that coming out will prolong his career and perhaps even get him some endorsement deals.
Collins, who had previously been engaged to a woman for eight years, announced his homosexuality in the May 6 edition of Sports Illustrated, which appeared online on April 29. His first-person essay began: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” He said he made his decision because of a confluence of events that included seeing his friend, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D, Mass.), march in a pride parade and the terror attacks in Boston. Collins wrote, “I want to be genuine and authentic and truthful.”
His announcement was met with a chorus of congratulations from his fellow athletes, celebrities, and politicians. President Barack Obama called Collins to congratulate him for his bravery and told a press conference, “I’m very proud of him.” Black activist Rev. Al Sharpton called Collins a “hero” and a “role model.”
Sports pundits said that Collins’ example would lead other athletes, from high school through the pros, to be comfortable with being openly gay. He was applauded for his courage and leadership on social media by celebrities, such as openly lesbian talk show host Ellen Degeneres, and his NBA colleagues, including Kobe Bryant.
But Breitbart.com’s Ben Shapiro questioned whether the hero label fit, saying coming out in an increasingly gay-friendly culture is hardly comparable to the heroic sacrifices of soldiers in World War II. And John Stonestreet of Breakpoint Commentary said: “When you get a call from the President of the United States to congratulate you on the step you’ve just taken, it’s a safe guess you really didn’t have much to fear in taking it.”
For the past few years, numerous sports pundits have been agitating for an openly homosexual professional athlete to help challenge what they considered the “last bastion” of so-called homophobia. NBA commissioner David Stern and National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell have eagerly anticipated the first openly gay players in their leagues, with Goodell promising it would be accepted and not merely tolerated.
For its part, Sports Illustrated, which started working with Collins on his coming out story more than a month before it hit the newsstands – and two weeks before Collins says he decided to make his announcement – ran columns about what its writers considered the importance of breaking the gay barrier in pro sports, in an obvious attempt to lay the groundwork for acceptance of Collins by sports fans. On April 15, feature columnist Phil Taylor predicted that “soon” a pro athlete would go public with his homosexuality, while also predicting it would not be all that controversial: “where would that backlash come from?” he asked. Following Collins’ announcement, one letter-writer complained, saying he wanted sports coverage in his Sports Illustrated, but the magazine ran that alongside five letters thanking them for running Collins’ coming out story.