With 10:28 remaining in the second quarter Sunday night, the newly-signed Jason Collins checked into his first NBA game since he came out as gay in April. The significance of the moment was unavoidable. Collins is the first openly gay man to appear in a game in the four major American sports leagues, and Sunday marked the end of an at times trying 10-month wait for him to find a roster spot after coming out.
As Collins walked to the scorer’s table to check in as a Brooklyn Net — and an openly gay man — for the first time, the Staples Center crowd buzzed. When he walked onto the floor, he received a round of applause from the Los Angeles Lakers crowd and a standing welcome from some, particularly those in Nets colors, in the crowd:
It’s easy to celebrate Collins, and his impact is hard to overstate. But new commissioner Adam Silver also felt an (understandable) tinge of regret about how long it took to open the doors of major American professional sports to the first openly gay athlete.
“I have mixed feelings, because I’m enormously proud that the first openly gay player is playing in the NBA,” Silver told The New York Post before Sunday’s game. “On the other hand, this is so long overdue that I don’t think this should necessarily be on the list of the greatest accomplishments of the NBA. This is an area where no one in sports should be too proud. Sports has led society in so many critical areas … this is one where we fell behind.”
That is, unfortunately, an unavoidable fact, and Silver’s regret is understandable. But perhaps the biggest significance of Jason Collins’ finding a team and getting on the court is that it will help legitimize the leadership efforts sports have started taking on LGBT issues.
In recent years, leagues have adopted non-discrimination policies and some of their athletes have pushed to change attitudes and atmospheres inside sports. The NFL last year announced a partnership with the You Can Play Project to help LGBT youth outside of sports. The NHL has worked with You Can Play to foster tolerance and acceptance in lower leagues. All of those efforts are significant, helpful, and necessary. But without an openly gay athlete in any of the four major leagues, they also rang a bit hollow. How could the NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball preach tolerance and equality with little proof that they practiced it too? They needed an openly gay athlete to legitimize their efforts, to seize the leadership role sports have taken on so many societal issues before.
Now the NBA has one. Thanks to Michael Sam, the NFL may soon have one too. And Collins and Sam will further pave the road for more athletes to come out. That, as Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant said Sunday, will only thrust sports into the leadership position it should have claimed long ago.
“I think the most important part about it, what I’ve learned on the issue is that one person coming out is showing this type of courage that gives others that same type of courage,” Bryant told Yahoo Sports. “It’s dealing with a lot of issues for kids who are afraid to be themselves. Afraid to be themselves because of the peer pressure that comes with it. A lot of these kids have depression issues or they’re being teased from other kids for being different. You wind up seeing a lot of suicides, kids injuring themselves and getting hooked on things that they should not be hooked on.”
Bryant is a fine example of the type of change gay athletes can foster. In 2011, he was fined for using a gay slur on the bench. By 2013, when Collins came out, Bryant was calling out homophobic language on Twitter, and he was one of the first to publicly welcome Collins to the league. Now, on the day Collins shattered an NBA barrier, Bryant is well-versed enough in the issues LGBT people face to know that the significance of Collins’ return to the league stretches far beyond the basketball court.
Sports might have lagged behind, but the fight for equality isn’t over. While all four leagues now ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, it is still legal to fire employees because they are gay in 29 states (and in the federal government). While all four leagues are preaching equality, schools and youth sports remain among the most dangerous places for LGBT youth to be themselves. While it’s easy to think of sports as the last bastion of homophobia, the reality is that states like Kansas and others are trying to enshrine even more discrimination into law.
Just as total equality remains an unrealized goal in sports, it is so in other parts of our society too. Jason Collins’ appearance on an NBA court won’t fix that. But Collins, along with Michael Sam and Robbie Rogers and prominent female athletes who have come out in recent years, gives the sports world a chance to take a legitimate role in leading the fight for equality across the board. It’s understandable that Silver and other executives in sports want to lament the fact that their games have taken a backseat in this fight before. It’s not too late to take up that leadership role now, though, and Collins’ return has given the sports world a golden chance to start leading the fight for equality and acceptance the way it could have and should have years ago.