The magnitude of NBA player Jason Collins' coming out today cannot be overestimated. He breaks a barrier that we've been waiting for someone to plunge through: a major league sports player saying "I'm gay" while still playing and at the height of his career. We've seen former major league football players and others come out after retirement, but until now, no one has dared say it while still playing major league sports.
There's been enormous progress on LGBT rights in the courts and in the public opinion polls, yet for all that progress it's still true that no leading man or woman in Hollywood, the kind of people who, like it or not, are idolized by young people in our culture, has dared come out of the closet. And that was true of the world of professional sports until today.
It's important for young people when anyone comes out, be it an educator, a parent, a brother or sister, a community leader or a politician. It creates enormous visibility and tells them that it's safe to come out if they are gay, lesbian or bisexual themselves. And if they're heterosexual, it tells them that gay people deserve respect. But it's especially powerful for someone to come out in the macho world of professional sports, where homophobia has been allowed to flourish over the years. (Only very recently have the leagues and the teams begun to speak out against homophobia.) The message to young Americans, even in the midst of the strides of the gay marriage movement, has been clear: Gays may be out on television, in schools and even in our families, but if they know what's best for them, they'd better stay cowering in the closet in the world of sports.
The locker room, we've been told, couldn't handle it. Straight players wouldn't be able to accept knowing of a gay player in their midst. Just this past January, NFL player Chris Culliver drove that ugly message home when he said in a radio interview that gay players shouldn't even think about coming out. Asked whether there are any gay players on the 49ers, Culliver said, "Nah. We don't got no gay people on the team. You know, they gotta get up out of here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff. ... Can't be... can't... uh... be in the locker room." Asked if gay players should stay closeted while playing professionally, Culliver responded, "Yeah, you gotta, you gotta come out 10 years later after that."
But now, here comes Jason Collins, telling Sports Illustrated, "I'm a 34-year-old center. I'm black. And I'm gay." More than that, Collins says he's delighted to rise to the occasion, seeing the enormous importance of doing so. "I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport," he explained. "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."
That took a lot courage, and it will no doubt inspire many others, making it easier not only for the next player but for so many young people across America.