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Coming Out of the Shadows

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Jason Collins (USA Today)

Jason Collins (USA Today)

The first active player in a major American professional sports league to come out was never going to be a Bryce Harper, Aaron Rodgers, Kevin Durant or Sidney Crosby. It was never going to be an athlete who had so much invested in his career, a perennial superstar who was either at the beginning or peak of his powers.

It was always going to be someone like Jason Collins. And for now, that’s perfectly fine.

Collins is the courageous individual who on Monday announced to the world that he’s gay, following in the footsteps of the likes of Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, John Amaechi, Greg Louganis and more recently Seimone Augustus, Robbie Rogers and Brittney Griner. The circumstances aren’t quite the same, though. King, Navratilova and Louganis were participating in individual sports and didn’t have to worry about any friction between teammates, which particularly would have been relevant considering all three announced their sexuality in the much less tolerant and more turbulent 1980s. Augustus and Griner, while stars in the game of women’s basketball, can take solace in the fact that the WNBA has openly embraced a fan base that includes a large percentage of homosexuals. Amaechi’s announcement came four years after he retired and Rogers’ was a part-retirement, part-coming-out blog post earlier this year – though he’s since thought of returning to soccer.

Brittney Griner (Getty Images)

Brittney Griner (Getty Images)

Collins is a relative nobody in NBA circles. I consider myself someone who follows the league as close as anyone and had zero clue that he played 32 games for Boston this season before being traded to Washington in late February. He’s played more than 14,000 minutes in his career. Of the other 677 players who can say that, only one – Charles Jones – has scored fewer points. Collins spent 383 minutes on the floor this season and took 29 shots. Carmelo Anthony has attempted that many per game in about one-tenth the playing time so far in the playoffs.

But Monday’s announcement wasn’t about points, blocks or rebounds. It was about stepping forward to be a trail blazer for others. Collins is 34, has made more than $32 million dollars for being a nearly 7-foot tall foul machine who is capable of setting a good pick, is secure financially and can finally be secure personally. He’s a free agent this summer who won’t cry foul if he’s not offered a contract. If he isn’t, it’s because talent evaluators don’t think he can be one of the 12 best players on an NBA team, not because he’s gay.

“I’ve never sought the spotlight. Though I’m coming out to the world, I intend to guard my privacy. I’m making this blanket statement in part to keep rumors and misunderstandings at bay. I hope fans will respect me for raising my hand. And I hope teammates will remember that I’ve never been an in-your-face kind of guy. All you need to know is that I’m single. I see no need to delve into specifics.” – Jason Collins in Sports Illustrated, 4/29/13

The thought here is that he’ll wind up on someone’s bench for one more season, coming in occasionally to grab a key rebound or foul Dwight Howard six times. He’ll be the same good teammate that he’s always been and be an eloquent advocate for gay rights, not a sideshow who is more of a media distraction than his talent warrants (“see Tebow, Timothy”).

Collins didn’t open the door to more tolerance and understanding of homosexuality in professional sports today. It was already cracked thanks to the names who bravely spoke up before him, but he gave it an awfully noticeable nudge. Someday, not long from now, an athlete with a bit more talent who’s in the prime of his career will make the same announcement. After that, a star rookie or second-year player will do the same.

Eventually, a team will draft a player knowing he’s openly gay. Except you won’t hear about it, because by then it will matter just as little as what color suit he’s wearing on his way to shake the commissioner’s hand.

Then, we’ll know that Collins didn’t just keep opening the door.

He broke it down.


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