Is Jason Collins Being the First Openly Gay NBA Athlete Significant?

The basketball player was the first to play in one of the four major American leagues.

Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins.

Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins.

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Jason Collins became the first openly gay NBA athlete to play in a game on Sunday after signing a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets. He came out as gay last April in a Sports Illustrated article.

When he hit the court, Collins became not just the NBA's first openly gay player, but the first in any of America’s four major male sports leagues. “Today Jason Collins tore open the last remaining closet in America,” said Brian Ellner, a founding member of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit that raises awareness about homophobia in sports. “This is a piece of history, an important point on the continuum toward justice and a moment to celebrate.”

Collins played for the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards in the 2012-2013 season, but until this weekend no team had signed him for the current season. “Right now, I’m focused on trying to learn the plays, the game plan assignment,” Collins said before the game Sunday night. “I don’t have time to really think about history right now.” In the Nets 108-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, Collins registered two rebounds and a steal.

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Brooklyn Nets forward Paul Pierce acknowledged that Collins was opening a path for other gay athletes. “In a society we live in, this was going to happen eventually. This is the normal. He is a guy who is going to open the door for athletes. Maybe not just in America but all over the world, the sports world,” Pierce said. “That’s going to be key. It doesn’t matter your race, your gender, your sexuality, or any of that. It’s about being part of a team. It’s about caring for one another. That’s all that matters at the end of the day.”

New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica wrote that someday, a gay professional athlete announcing he is gay won't qualify as news at all:

First Jason Collins announces that he is gay, and becomes the first athlete out of the major team sports in this country to do that, even if he didn’t technically have a team at the time.

Now Collins gets a job with the Brooklyn Nets. This is what passes for history in professional sports in the year 2014, even if Collins’ history doesn’t last past his 10-day contract with the Nets.

Someday this will all happen in sports without gay athletes having to make announcements, or tacitly asking for our approval. Someday gay athletes will be able to go about their business in America without coming out of the closet, and feeling obligated, in the words of the great old Boston Globe columnist George Frazier, to slam the door behind them.

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Collins isn’t expected to remain the only openly gay athlete to have played for a major American sports league for long: University of Missouri football player Michael Sam, who recently announced that he is gay, is expected to be drafted into the NFL in May. Robbie Rogers, who is also openly gay, played last season for Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy.

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