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Jason Collins Becomes First Openly Gay Pro Athlete

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

In a first-person story that will run in ‘Sports Illustrated,’ the veteran center has broken a barrier in sports.

Jason Collins Becomes First Openly Gay Pro Athlete

Jason Collins, a veteran center who has played for six teams in his 11-year NBA career (and most recently with the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards this year), has come out as the first active, openly gay professional athlete in a major American team sport after his first person story in Sports Illustrated was put online today. There have been plenty of athletes that have come out after their playing careers were finished, like former center John Amaechi, but we haven't had one still playing that has decided to open up about his sexuality. Here's how Collins starts his piece (and you should really read the whole thing, because it is fantastic):

I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.

I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, "I'm different." If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand.

It certainly takes plenty of courage to do what he did. The political climate now compared to 2003, when Collins first started in the league, is much more accepting and open about the gay community. There are still challenges, but progress is being made. However, there are still so many prejudices around sports culture and gays that have not been so quick to adapt. We still have stories like Jamie Kuntz, a football player for North Dakota State College who feels he was kicked off the team because of his sexual orientation. You have San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver saying that he doesn't do gay people on the team and that they "gotta get up out of here if they do." Sports seems a step behind the rest of the country, and Collins says as much though things are starting to change.

I'm glad I'm coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted. And yet we still have so much farther to go. Everyone is terrified of the unknown, but most of us don't want to return to a time when minorities were openly discriminated against. I'm impressed with the straight pro athletes who have spoken up so far -- Chris Kluwe, Brendon Ayanbadejo. The more people who speak out, the better, gay or straight. It starts with President Obama's mentioning the 1969 Stonewall riots, which launched the gay rights movement, during his second inaugural address. And it extends to the grade-school teacher who encourages her students to accept the things that make us different.

The only thing that can get in the way of this story is the fact that Collins is technically a free agent now. His contract is up with the Wizards, so he will be looking for a new team in the offseason. At this stage of his career, Collins is a marginal role player. He knows that, too. He accepts his role as a banger in the post that has six fouls to give and can try to do enough on defense to keep opposing big men from scoring. Collins averaged under 10 minutes a game in Washington and didn't produce a whole lot to justify extended playing time. 

Hopefully Collins does land somewhere, because he can certainly provide any team with a veteran presence that is still serviceable. Is Collins the best player? No. But Collins certainly deserves just as much of an opportunity to prove he can still produce in this league, gay or straight. No matter what really unfolds, Collins has opened the door for some real change to occur in the sports world.

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. Former players like Tim Hardaway, who said "I hate gay people" (and then became a supporter of gay rights), fuel homophobia. Tim is an adult. He's entitled to his opinion. God bless America. Still, if I'm up against an intolerant player, I'll set a pretty hard pick on him. And then move on.

The most you can do is stand up for what you believe in. I'm much happier since coming out to my friends and family. Being genuine and honest makes me happy.

The decision is a big one for gay athletes out there that have had to hide or pretend to be something they are not. There is no way to see the impact of his decision immediately. We'll see that in the years to come, when more and more players (hopefully) come out and these decisions won't be headline news. We'll see that when people can finally feel comfortable enough to be genuine and honest with each other, which will hopefully make all of those gay athletes out there as happy as Collins is.

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