NBA player Jason Collins coming out is a defining moment in sports

April 29, 2013|Kevin Cowherd

Maybe you yawned when you heard the news.

Or maybe you just shrugged when you heard about Jason Collins and said: "What's the big deal?"

But it's a very big deal.

First active male player in a major team sport to declare he's gay? In the macho world of the NBA, where a player like Tim Hardaway once hissed "I hate gay people" before the ensuing backlash had him backpedaling like a fighter trying to avoid another haymaker?

Oh, it's a very big deal.

Now Collins, a 34-year-old journeyman center for six teams over 12 seasons, comes out of the closet and makes history.

And he comes out squarely on his own terms.

He doesn't come out after a whisper campaign forces his hand — he kept his secret well and says even his twin brother didn't know he was gay.

He doesn't come out after some sleaze-ball with a cell phone snaps a picture of him with a boyfriend and sells it to every website in the land.

No, he comes out in a big, splashy cover story in Sports Illustrated, in a first-person essay with writer Franz Lidz that's honest and revealing and funny and sad, all at the same time.

"I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, 'I'm different,'" Collins wrote. "If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand."

Sure, anyone with common sense knows Collins isn't the only gay man playing in the NBA or the NFL or Major League Baseball — or any other team sport, for that matter.

But he was the first one who took a deep breath and came out while he still had a career to protect. (He's a free agent who last played for the Washington Wizards this season and wants to keep playing.)

That's why this is so momentous.

"I've been crying all day," said Cyd Zeigler, manager of the website Outsports, which bills itself as "The Galactic Leader in Gay Sports." "It's a big deal and I can't stop being emotional about it.

"... I hearken back to all the emails I've gotten over the years from kids who are gay and who are in sports and have either attempted suicide or thought about it. I think how they must feel, finally having someone in the public eye to point to and say: 'That guy's like me.'"

Baltimorean Kevin Naff, editor of the Washington Blade -- a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender publication in D.C. -- agreed.

"This will absolutely save lives," he said. "If you're a 13-year-old gay black kid coming to terms with your sexuality, to see Jason Collins on the cover of Sports Illustrated will change -- and possibly save -- lives."

Now the question is: where does this all go from here?

So far, Collins seems to have gotten a ton of support from fellow NBA players, among them Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Kevin Durant. Commissioner David Stern called Collins "a widely respected player and teammate" and said the league is "proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue."

Bill Clinton said he has Collins' back — Collins was a friend and classmate of Chelsea Clinton when both were at Stanford. And Nike made it clear it had no intention of dropping Collins as a product endorser, adding: "We are a company committed to diversity and inclusion." (Not to mention a company committed to making money. Cutting Collins loose and angering sneaker-buying gays would undoubtedly be bad for business.)

Collins said he came out now because, in so many words, he couldn't continue living a lie. But he doesn't pretend the road ahead will be easy if he hooks on with another NBA team.

In this age of political correctness, I'd be shocked if many players come out publicly and rip Collins. Look how Hardaway got slapped around by social media — and by everyone else with a column or a website — for his vicious remarks.

But you can bet Collins won't have an easy time in the locker room, where homophobia is still ingrained. And don't think he won't hear it from the yahoos in the stands, too.

The larger issue is this: will NBA front offices shy away from signing an openly gay player for fear of creating discontent in the locker room? In Collins' case, it may be hard to tell.

He's not exactly a superstar, averaging 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game for his career. But he's been able to hang around the game by doing all the dirty work: setting picks, taking charges and fouling opponents with all the grace of a stevedore to prevent baskets.

"I hate to say it," he wrote in SI, "and I'm not proud of it, but I once fouled a player so hard that he had to leave the arena on a stretcher. I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay?"

So if Collins doesn't play next season, is it because teams worried he might make some teammates uncomfortable? Or because he's at the end of his career and not that good anymore?

We'll see how it all plays out. But there's no question Jason Collins has given us a defining moment in sports.

One that was a long time coming.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kevincowherdsun

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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