Gay basketball player Jason Collins has everything left to play for
Collins is first male athlete participating in major US professional team sports to come out
Jason Collins used to joke that he chose the 98 shirt number when he signed for the Boston Celtics to “mess with refs when they called me for fouls” but the player said this week he had picked the number to mark the year Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was killed. Photograph: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Just weeks after the US Supreme Court heard landmark arguments for and against gay marriage, America was gripped this week with the disclosure by basketball player Jason Collins that he is gay, making him the first active male athlete in major American professional team sports to come out.
The announcement is significant in American sporting life and beyond when you consider that it is 38 years since former American footballer Dave Kopay, who played for the Washington Redskins, became the first gay player to come out following his retirement after a nine-year career in the NFL.
Collins, who has played with the NBA’s Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards, announced the news in a column he wrote for Sports Illustrated magazine.
“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,” wrote the seven-foot player, 12-year veteran of six NBA teams.
“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.”
A whirl of rumours had been circulating among sports journalists that a major athlete was about to come out, but the public admission by way of a published first-person account by Collins was carefully choreographed. His agent, Arn Tellem, had offered Sports Illustrated the exclusive three weeks earlier without identifying the athlete and asking the magazine to meet at an address in Los Angeles.
Collins used to joke that he chose the 98 shirt number when he signed for the Boston Celtics to “mess with refs when they called me for fouls” but the player admitted this week that he had picked the number to mark the year Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was killed.
He considered ‘8’ to match the number of the piece of legislation that banned gay marriage in California but opted against it as it was the number of a player with whom he had a few scrapes on the court.
Collins said that the NBA lockout of 2011 and some alone time prompted him to start coming out to friends and family after he disclosed his secret to one of his personal trainers.
When Collins saw Joseph P Kennedy III, his roommate in Stanford and now a US congressman, marching in Boston’s gay pride parade last year, he was envious and decided to go public.
“I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore,” he wrote in the column. “I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, ‘me too’.”
The news was, for the most part, greeted positively. US president Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey called Collins to applaud him for taking a brave step. Obama said at the end of the White House press conference coinciding with the 100th day of his second term that he “couldn’t be prouder”.
But the reaction from others typified the polar views towards homosexuality being played out far away from basketball courts in state legislatures and legal courtrooms across the country.
Chris Broussard, a basketball analyst on the ESPN sports channel, said that living openly as a homosexual was a sin and “walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ”.
An American footballer, NFL receiver Mike Wallace, posted a message on the Twitter social media website saying: “All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys.” He later apologised, saying he “never said anything was right or wrong; I just said I don’t understand!!”
Since Collins’ disclosure, further fuelling the news story, media commentator Howard Kurtz was fired as a columnist by the Daily Beast news website after falsely accusing Collins of concealing that he was once engaged to a woman. The player had in fact previously referred to his engagement, which he broke off in 2009 though did not acknowledge at the time that it was because he was gay.
Collins said he would like to marry and that he considered making a public statement while the Supreme Court pondered gay marriage for the first time in March in a case that could pave the way for same-sex marriages across the United States.
In the meantime support for gay marriage is building gradually state by state. This week Rhode Island became the 10th state in the country and the last in New England, a more liberal corner of the United States, to approve gay marriage.
While the most anticipated Supreme Court rulings in years are awaited in two gay marriage cases over the coming months, another interesting indicator of how America is changing will be the reaction of the NBA when Collins, a marginal player rather than a superstar, becomes a free agent in July and searches for a new team.