Collins paves way for gay athletes

Bravo, Jason Collins, for your bravery, for your candor and for the history you made Monday.

It began on the cover of Sports Illustrated with three words, “The Gay Athlete” and a portrait of the 34-year-old NBA veteran. It continued inside the magazine, where Collins wrote: “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.”

Then came the support, from league officials David Stern and Adam Silver, from former president Bill Clinton, from celebrities and athletes such as Kobe Bryant, who tweeted, “Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others #courage #support #mambaarmystandup #BYOU.”

This is a remarkable moment in America’s struggle for equal rights, and an equally significant one in sports. Collins is the first active openly gay man in any of the major American team sports. This is no small thing, no trivial matter that should be dismissed because he is not a star.

After the initial burst of support, it is going to be important to remember that this is a seminal moment not because what he did is easy or easily done but because it will absolutely be very hard and, in ways big and small, alienating.

The words of encouragement notwithstanding, there is a reason Collins is the first gay man to do what he has done. A locker room — scratch that, huge swaths of American society — can be unforgiving places for men who happen to be gay. Otherwise, this would not be news; this would not be new.

We do not know yet whether this will impact Collins’ efforts to keep playing basketball, which he hopes to continue to do. He is far from a star, having averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game over the course of his 12 seasons in the league.

But he is a 7-foot center, a guy six teams have brought onto their roster, a great locker room guy, and so in most circumstances he is someone who would get a fair shake at prolonging his career past age 34. And now? Now he is a gay man, the guy who came out, and everything he does will forever be marked by that.

This is who he is now, for better or worse. It is better for us, and for the league, and for the still-blossoming idea that in this country everyone really should get to be treated fairly regardless of their differences from the rest of us. We are better as a people when we confront our own prejudices, when the brave among us step forward and force us to confront who we are and what we believe and how we should change.

But will it be better for Jason Collins? It often is not for trailblazers. It can be a lonely road, sometimes, where there are fewer friends and suddenly more enemies than had been expected.

The issue of gay rights in this country is not settled, even though it should be. There are still many, many Americans — NBA fans, athletes, folks from every walk of life — who are mildly to extraordinarily hostile to gay people.

This stems from many things — religious beliefs, misunderstanding, ignorance, fear, simple hate. This is what Jason Collins has thrust himself into, what, in part, he has beckoned by being the first to raise his hand.

The first question for Collins will be how players and other teams respond. There is a sense — more of a hope — in the league that Collins will be a basketball player first and foremost in whatever locker room he next enters. That what he has done will be history minus the histrionics of those bothered by who Collins happens to be.

“I am extremely happy and proud of Jason Collins,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said in a statement. “He’s a pro’s pro. He is the consummate professional, and he is one of my favorite ‘team’ players I have ever coached.

"If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society who has to learn tolerance. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘I am who I am, are whom we are, can be what I want to be; it’s not up to you, it’s just me being me.’ ”

Rivers is right, of course, that who Collins gets to be is up to Collins.

But who we are — as NBA fans, as sports fans, as Americans — is equally up to us. And we will be measured in part by how we respond to this news, and how we react to those who would shout down or shame a man for having the courage to be the first to raise his hand.

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