Jason Collins is a free agent. He’s a skilled center that can provide stout defense off of the bench, and he’s a veteran presence. He’s also just become the first openly gay athlete in professional North American team sports.
Throughout his 12-year NBA career, the journeyman center has been known for leaving an indelible imprint on every game he plays without putting up major numbers. He’d defend the league’s best big men expertly, changing the course of both regular season and major playoff games with his work on that end, while barely adding points or rebounds to the box score. If you weren’t watching, you wouldn’t know he was there; much less what sort of impact he made.
Now, after a game-changing interview with Sports Illustrated, Jason Collins has made a sports-altering impact. The free agent center, who played with both Boston and Washington in 2012-13, has announced he is gay. And the calmness and confidence in his revelation befits a man who was always just fine with playing a style of game that left him unnoticed by all but those who were paying close attention.
No one wants to live in fear. I've always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don't sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I've endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back.
Loyalty to my team is the real reason I didn't come out sooner. When I signed a free-agent contract with Boston last July, I decided to commit myself to the Celtics and not let my personal life become a distraction. When I was traded to the Wizards, the political significance of coming out sunk in. I was ready to open up to the press, but I had to wait until the season was over.
A college classmate tried to persuade me to come out then and there. But I couldn't yet. My one small gesture of solidarity was to wear jersey number 98 with the Celtics and then the Wizards. The number has great significance to the gay community. One of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days after he was finally found. That same year the Trevor Project was founded. This amazing organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to kids struggling with their sexual identity. Trust me, I know that struggle. I've struggled with some insane logic. When I put on my jersey I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends.
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.