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The Benchwarming Journeyman Who Changed American Sports Forever

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MARK J. TERRILL
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MARK J. TERRILL

Eighteen months after Jason Collins shook the world of sports by coming out as gay in an article for Sports Illustrated, the veteran NBA center on Wednesday announced his retirement from basketball. Collins, who played 13 seasons for six teams, finally returned to the league in February 2014, when he signed with the Brooklyn Nets and became the first openly gay player to appear in a game in any of America’s four major professional sports leagues.

Collins opened his essay on coming out with a simple three-sentence declaration: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” After months of wondering whether he would return to the league, he signed a 10-day contract with the Nets and played through the end of the season. In all, he played 22 NBA games as an openly gay man. Collins had not signed with an NBA team for the 2014–2015 season before announcing his official retirement, first in separate essays announcing his retirement in Sports Illustrated and The Players’ Tribune and then at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.

The sports world Collins will leave behind, at least as a player, is in a major way still remarkably similar to the one he joined: there are no openly gay players in today’s NBA, and none in the three other major sports either. Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Robbie Rogers, who came out months before Collins and returned to Major League Soccer in May 2013, remains America’s most prominent openly gay male athlete.

But make no mistake, sports also changed forever the day Collins came out. There were, for instance, the subsequent decisions to come out from Michael Sam, who in May became the first openly gay player selected in the NFL Draft, and University of Massachusetts guard Derrick Gordon, the first openly gay man in major conference college basketball. Sam is still trying to catch on with a team, while Gordon is playing as an openly gay man for the first time in his life and has helped UMass to a 3–0 record to start the 2014 season. It’s possible both would have made the same decision had Collins stayed in the closet. It is also obvious that Collins’ coming out at least made it easier for them.

He’s opened the doors and started conversations where they just weren’t happening before.

In other ways, the impact of Collins’ announcement exists outside the spotlight of every day sports discussion and stretches beyond professional and prominent collegiate athletics. Even as he prefers to be remembered first as a basketball player, it is impossible to ignore his contributions to the movement for LGBT equality both inside and outside sports — and the way he changed them in the last 18 months.

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“Jason — and Michael — have started or amplified conversations where they previously did not exist. That’s been super important,” said Cyd Zeigler, who has chronicled and pushed forward the movement for LGBT equality in sports through the web site OutSports, which he co-founded 15 years ago. “The NFL and the NBA, a lot of stuff you’ve seen from them over the last year and a half, has been because athletes are coming out. People talk about the importance of straight allies, and any type of ally is important to a social justice movement, but they’re not the key. The key is the LGBT athlete.

“So I think that’s Jason’s lasting legacy: he’s opened the doors and started conversations where they just weren’t happening before.”

Before Collins, and later Sam, came out, instances of casual homophobia could lead to fines and suspensions but rarely generated substantive conversations about a gay athlete’s place — or even mere existence — in sports, said Wade Davis, the former NFL player who came out as gay after his career ended. Davis now serves as the executive director of the You Can Play Project, which advocates, often through direct work with professional leagues, for LGBT equality in sports. He said that Collins forced everyone else to look at gay athletes as a reality rather than a hypothetical.

“We’ve got a culture that is OK with casual homophobia and sexist language,” Davis said. “What Jason Collins’ presence does — now people have to be held accountable. Because what people said before was, ‘Well, he said that, but he wasn’t talking to anyone, and no one’s gay here, so no one’s offended by it.’ Now that Collins is in existence, people realize there are more Jasons out there, more Michael Sams out there, that when you say something homophobic, you’re actually affecting someone who you truly believe exists now.”

Knowing gay players are there has an even larger impact on other gay athletes, especially those much younger than a 34-year-old NBA center.

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Davis said that when he played, he often felt as if he were the only gay player in sports, stuck on an island wondering if anyone else was living his experience. Collins wrote of a similar feeling, and Davis has heard the same thoughts from plenty of other athletes, especially younger ones. Even though there aren’t any other gay players in the NBA, NFL, NHL, or MLB now, he still remembers a thought he had about Collins’ impact on other LGBT people when he first heard about the coming out.

“I thought back a little to my own time, and I really started to think, ‘Wow, there will never be a time where there’s another kid who’s LGBT has to worry about not being able to imagine themselves being accepted in a major sport, because of Jason Collins,’” Davis said. “Even if there may not be a watershed of young people or athletes who are coming out, they at least know that they’re not the only one.”

When you love yourself, it is much easier to face what the world has in store for you.

“I think what Jason Collins, what Michael Sam, what Brittney Griner are doing, without even realizing it, is they’re helping young people like themselves,” he added, referring also to the WNBA star who came out before she entered the league. “When you love yourself, it is much easier to face what the world has in store for you.”

In the days after his announcement and his return to the NBA nearly a year later, Collins also shattered narratives that existed around the idea of gay athletes. He wrote in SI that he was “happy to have helped” destroy the “canard” that gay players would be a distraction to their teammates. “The much-ballyhooed media blitz to cover me unscrambled so quickly that a flack jokingly nicknamed me Mr. Irrelevant,” he wrote. Indeed, after the initial excitement of his coming out and then his return, the media paid little attention, treating him as the journeyman center who played an under-appreciated role that he was.

Inherent to the “distraction” idea was the belief that his fellow players couldn’t accept a gay teammate, another narrative Collins exposed. Davis pointed to the fact that many of the NBA’s top stars congratulated him on coming out and for his return to the league, proving that “athletes are much more equipped to handle this” than many people thought, and that leaders like those stars could help foster understanding and acceptance throughout their sports.

These presupposed narratives were always flimsy. Collins provided hard proof of how inane they were.

That, of course, doesn’t mean the fight is over, or that sports have become the fully open and tolerant place for gay athletes they need to be. There are positive signs, like Rogers’ new contract extension with L.A., and negatives, like Sam’s trouble finding a place to play. And while leagues have made progress with new non-discrimination policies and in other ways, both Zeigler and Davis said they need to keep increasing their commitment to equality with proactive conversations and actions that make LGBT athletes, fans, coaches, and executives feel welcome. Many of those conversations still need to take place in the world of women’s sports too.

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Though Collins has said little publicly about specific plans for the future, Zeigler had a suggestion for how the NBA could demonstrate such a commitment, pointing to openly gay former baseball player Billy Bean’s role as a cultural ambassador for MLB: “If the NBA’s smart, they’ll go to Jason Collins, if they’re serious about this, and say, ‘Jason, we want you to have a very similar role to what Billy Bean has in baseball. We want you to be an ambassador of inclusion, and really lead the charge here.’”

No matter what he decides to do, and despite the barriers that still need breaking and the conversations that still need having, Collins has left his mark. He is proof that gay people belong in this space, a role model for young athletes and LGBT people who had searched for their own identities and are still searching for them today. He is a marker of how far both sports and society have come in the short time since the days when athletes like Davis, who joined the NFL in 2000, felt so lonely inside themselves and their world. And at the same time, he is a reminder of how far we still have to go to foster a culture, both inside and outside sports, that accepts and welcomes LGBT people for who they are without hesitance.

“There are still no publicly gay players in the NFL, NHL or Major League Baseball. Believe me: They exist. Every pro sport has them. I know some of them personally,” Collins wrote for SI this week. “When we get to the point where a gay pro athlete is no longer forced to live in fear that he’ll be shunned by teammates or outed by tabloids, when we get to the point where he plays while his significant other waits in the family room, when we get to the point where he’s not compelled to hide his true self and is able to live an authentic life, then coming out won’t be such a big deal. But we’re not there yet.”

But he is a man who took a major step in bringing sports to that place.

“I see Jason as an embodiment of courage,” Davis said. “I think Jason, hopefully, has given the rest of us an image of what courage is and what it looks like. From my perspective, that will be the legacy of Jason Collins.”