If we’re being honest here, the first gay professional athlete in the United States probably played baseball for the New York Mutuals or the Chicago White Stockings of the old National Association in the 1870s.
So Jason Collins’ brave announcement, made Monday via Sports Illustrated magazine’s website, was about 140 years in the making. That makes him sort of the Jackie Robinson of gay players and sort of the opposite.
Robinson didn’t get to play 12 years in the major leagues, proving himself as a person and a player and a teammate, before revealing that he was a black man. His shattering of the color barrier was an act of personal courage on his part and moral fortitude on the part of Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Robinson, Rickey, and the Dodgers were boldly ahead of history. It was 16 years after Robinson stepped on a major league field that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech. Baseball, and sports in general, were 20 years ahead of the rest of America (and 30 or 40 years ahead of parts of it).
As personally courageous as Collins is for coming out as a gay man in the NBA, the truth is that sports is way behind the rest of the country on this one.
It was two years ago that former Villanova basketball player Will Sheridan came out publicly. Sheridan had graduated and was no longer playing. He considered his revelation a small step in the journey toward tolerance and acceptance.
“I didn’t really do this for myself,” Sheridan said at the time. “I’m not getting anything out of it. I’m doing it for lots of other people. It has been almost therapeutic for other people – and for me as well.”
We talked about the inevitability of an active professional player coming out. Again, that was two years ago.
Since then, the U.S. military has abolished its long-standing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, freeing gays to serve openly. The president of the United States mentioned Stonewall, a watershed moment for gay civil rights, in the same breath as Selma during his inaugural address. A number of well-known people in other walks of life have come out publicly. Politicians who voted for the federal Defense of Marriage Act are now rushing to establish themselves as supporters of gay civil rights.
There is a wrong side of history, and nobody worth taking seriously wants to be on it.
Even in sports, the stage has been set for quite some time. NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo have spoken out publicly in support of gay marriage and encouraged closeted players to step forward. The NHL has embraced the You Can Play Project, an outreach program precipitated by the death of Brendan Burke. The son of longtime executive Brian Burke (and brother of Flyers scout Patrick), Brendan had spoken out against homophobia in hockey.
Somebody had to be the first to step out onto that stage, and it turned out to be Collins.
He was not exactly a household name before this. Collins has been the very definition of a journeyman, playing for six NBA teams in his 12 seasons. At 34, much more of his playing career is behind him than ahead of him. So the world still awaits the superstar athlete willing to risk endorsement money and fan backlash by kicking over the next big barrier.
But then, Collins has made a career of doing the tough, unglamorous work that frees up high-profile teammates to do their thing. That is just what he did here. Collins’ bold move made it that much easier for the next athlete.
That makes it important for Collins, a free agent this summer, to get the same offers he would have received before this. Just a hunch, but NBA teams will evaluate his game, not his orientation, and he’ll be playing next year.
The public reaction will help. Everyone from Bill Clinton to Flea, Kobe Bryant to Martina Navratilova, rushed onto social media to offer support and encouragement. There was some critical reaction but that was offset by immediate backlash.
It turns out the real world was way ahead of the sports world on this, but the sports world isn’t as far behind as Collins, or other gay players, might have feared.