I’m happy for Jason Collins, the veteran NBA center who found the inner strength to announce to the world yesterday (via a Sports Illustrated cover story) that he’s gay. He’s being called the first active player in a major US sport to come out, and I don’t want to throw water on that.
Now that the NBA regular season is over and Collins’ team, the Washington Wizards, isn’t in the playoffs, he’s a free agent, which means that until he gets re-signed by the Wizards or signed by another team — there’s a good chance neither will happen — he’s no longer in the NBA. And if that’s the case, while he was certainly an “active player” a month ago, he isn’t anymore. So, if Collins’ 12-year career is over, the questions of what the impact will be on NBA locker rooms may prove to be moot.
There have been five ex-NFL players to come out — Dave Kopay was the first, as early as 1975, followed by Roy Simmons in 1992, Esera Tuaolo in 2002, Wade Davis in 2012, and Kwame Harris in 2013. Only two former major league baseball players — Glenn Burke and Billy Bean — have come out. But all of them had already left the league before revealing their homosexuality.
Collins’ admission, while important, would carry a lot more weight if he were a current NBA star. Remember the reaction when Magic Johnson announced he had HIV? Amid the shock and sympathy for a guaranteed hall-of-famer, there were plenty of bigoted comments from those who didn’t understand the disease. Eventually, however, the public remembered why it loved Magic as he became a role model and an outstanding spokesperson for others who suffered from HIV.
That’s what the NBA (or NFL, NHL, or MLB) needs. In a world where Rutgers coach Mike Rice lost his job in part because he hurled gay slurs at his players with the same vitriol as basketballs, where players like Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah targeted a referee and a fan with similar slurs, it may take a big name player with the courage to come out at the peak of their career, not after they’ve played (what could very well be) their last game, to change the culture.
That will be the real test of how accepting pro athletes can be.