Sports are a pillar of American life, and professional teams have stereotypically been an unwelcome place for gay men. But Monday, NBA player Jason Collins came out in a first-person article posted to Sports Illustrated's website.
He's the first openly gay male athlete playing an American team sport, and his announcement begs the question as to whether his revelation will have any impact for other closeted professional athletes or the national conversation on gay rights.
Collins, who has played for six different professional basketball teams, said he never intended to be the first major male athlete to publicly announce he's gay, but that the Boston Marathon bombings showed him there's never going to be a perfect time for him to come out. He said he thought many people would be shocked he was gay because he was such an aggressive player, but that he hopes for positive reactions from his teammates:
I've been asked how other players will respond to my announcement. The simple answer is, I have no idea. I'm a pragmatist. I hope for the best, but plan for the worst. The biggest concern seems to be that gay players will behave unprofessionally in the locker room. Believe me, I've taken plenty of showers in 12 seasons. My behavior wasn't an issue before, and it won't be one now. My conduct won't change.
Collins likened his coming out in the NBA to the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the U.S. military. When the ban on gays serving in the military ended, opponents of lifting it were convinced the presence of gay service members would disrupt unit cohesion. But the opposite occurred, and Collins said he hopes his teammates will react the same way:
Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it's a good place to start. It all comes down to education. I'll sit down with any player who's uneasy about my coming out. Being gay is not a choice. This is the tough road and at times the lonely road.
Other professional athletes, like San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, have said previously they wouldn't welcome a gay player onto their team. In January before his team played in the Super Bowl, Culliver said, "I don't do the gay guys man. I don't do that. No, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do."
Culliver issued an apology following the statement, and the 49ers also issued a statement saying they rejected the homophobic comments. But such comments have enforced the perception that gay athletes are not welcome in professional sports.
The Human Rights Campaign Monday released a statement in support of Collins' announcement, and HRC President Chad Griffin said the NBA players coming out "has forever changed the face of sports:"
No longer will prejudice and fear force gay athletes to remain silent about a fundamental part of their lives. By coming out and living openly while still an active NBA player, Collins has courageously shown the world that one's sexual orientation is no longer an impediment to achieving one's goals, even at the highest levels of professional sports.
Collins' coming out comes at a time when public opinion on gay rights issues is rapidly evolving. Polls show the majority of Americans now support marriage equality, and many prominent current and former politicians have come out in support of gay marriage. The Supreme Court last month heard arguments on the constitutionality surrounding same-sex marriage, and is set to rule in two separate cases in June.
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