A couple hours before Sports Illustrated published details of his personal life that could permanently alter the sociological landscape of American professional sports, Jason Collins picked Twitter as his platform.
"Played golf for the 1st time since Oct on Sun," he wrote. "I broke 100 and had a birdie. Great way to relax before the start of a big week."
Initially seeming little more than another innocuous, mundane update typical of social media, the Tweet -- particularly the final sentence -- made much more sense soon enough, when SI released a first-person essay in which Collins revealed he is gay and set a spark to the trail he is about to blaze. The center the Celtics traded to the Wizards in February is believed to be the first male athlete in the United States' big-four pro sports leagues to live openly as a homosexual while he's still an active player.
Most certainly, Collins is not the only gay player currently in major-league American sports -- likely not even in the NBA -- so we knew this day was eventually coming. In fact, it became a hot-button issue around the time of the Super Bowl, then a month ago the NFL Players Association said it was making plans to prepare its members for the "inevitability" that one of them would come out. In other sports, teams like the Bruins have backed campaigns encouraging openness, and all sorts of players have long been asked how they'd feel if a teammate was to tell them he was gay. Those questions were posed with the safe assumption that someday one of them would.
But that doesn't make Collins' admission any less courageous, or this moment any less important, or this day any less of one to feel good about. After all, there are reasons a revelation such as this hadn't happened already, and whatever those reasons may be, we can take pride in knowing our society has at least progressed to the point where hope for acceptance and inclusion outweighs the fear of ridicule and ostracism for a person working in a high-profile and most-macho profession.
As Collins explained over the course of 2,906 poignant, powerful, and sometimes soul-pouring words, "I'm glad I'm coming out in 2013 rather than 2003" because "the climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted." In a way, there's some sadness in those words; they present a reality in which Collins has spent the vast majority of his career hiding something, and has been kept from getting close to any of his teammates because of his so-called "double life."
Though that's why, as much as an eventuality as it may have seemed, it is important that Collins came forward now. Having told his twin brother of his sexuality last summer, and other family members at other times, he waited until after his 12th NBA season so as not to cause a distraction for the Celtics, or the Wizards. But by not waiting any longer, he opened the door to the closet for anyone else to walk through as soon as they're ready.
Ex-power forward John Amaechi decided he wasn't ready until after he retired, though hopefully because of what Collins did today, a decade from now there won't be a pro athlete who delayed coming out until 2023 rather than 2013. And hopefully the reaction from the NBA community only furthers that process.
Collins admittedly doesn't know what that reaction will be, even after a dozen years in the league. He says that as a pragmatist he's expecting the worst while hoping for the best, and at least early the response has been positive. Dozens of his peers have taken to Twitter with messages of support -- the list of well-wishers including Kobe Bryant to Mark Madsen and guys of all skill levels in between -- while Commissioner David Stern reached out to tell Collins he was proud of him, and Celtics Coach Doc Rivers released a statement through his team that likened Collins' bold step to baseball's breaking of the color barrier.
"I am extremely happy and proud of Jason Collins," Rivers said. "He’s a pro’s pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite 'team' players I have ever coached. If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society who has to learn tolerance.
"One of my favorite sayings is, 'I am who I am, are whom we are, can be what I want to be its not up to you, it’s just me being me.'"
Collins praised Rivers' attitude in the SI piece, and the column somewhat suggests that his brief stint in Boston did have an impact in moving him toward today's disclosure. He notes he was jealous that Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy, his old roommate at Stanford, could walk in last year's gay pride parade -- yet Collins couldn't even openly cheer. Then, having lived near the site of the Boston Marathon bombings, he asked himself, "Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?" and decided to do so.
Because of that decision, he says he's happier. He's finally able to be honest, and genuine, and if anyone in the NBA is uneasy with the reason why that is, the center says he's happy to sit down with them and discuss it. If that doesn't work, and he finds himself on the court "up against an intolerant player, I'll set a pretty hard pick on him. And then move on."
Here's hoping a big man who has made his career out of using his fouls and proudly setting picks doesn't have to change his game just to send a message -- but moving on won't be easy. While Collins may have written that he has never sought the spotlight, by making himself a pioneer he has instantly gone from a basketball backup who plays 10 minutes a night to a face of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community nationwide.
That's an enormous change in responsibility -- though it is just as enormously important a role to undertake. Nineteen months after Barack Obama told gays they could exist openly in the military, Jason Collins told gays they could do the same in major-league sports, and with another wall of testosterone having been torn down our culture has moved a step closer to an ideal where everyone can simply be himself. A step closer to acceptance and true tolerance.
A step closer to the day when word that a pro athlete broke 100 on the golf course, and made a birdie, is just as newsworthy as the fact that he's gay.
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