As far as seminal moments in sports go, this is near the top. "I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport," Jason Collins wrote in a Sports Illustrated cover story this week. "But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation."
Collins has played 14 seasons in the NBA for six teams. He has never averaged more than six points a game in a career that could best be described as serviceable. You could well be a huge NBA fan and never have heard of him. Until now. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of gay rights, and it is one of the most contentious issues in the US, you have to admire his courage.
You also have to understand that Collins was the perfect candidate to break the gay barrier. He is not an up-and-coming bench warmer fighting for a job. He is a career bench warmer who has long ago qualified for a very tidy NBA pension. He is also a Stanford graduate who is both insightful and articulate and has been lauded at every stop in the NBA for his enduring professionalism.
Collins clearly understands the ramifications of being a pioneer. "I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, 'I'm different'," he wrote. "If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand."
Reaction has been generally positive and somewhat overwhelming. US President Barack Obama called to congratulate him on his courage and former president Bill Clinton offered kind words, while fellow players Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash tweeted their support as well.
But things are not all hunky dory in the land of enlightenment. Former WNBA player Carolyn Moos was in an eight-year relationship and engaged to Collins before they split in 2009. Needless to say, she was more than a bit shocked. And because so many athletes openly profess their faith in God, it was inevitable there would be a backlash. ESPN NBA reporter Chris Broussard said on a panel show that Collins' choice was "a sin and an open rebellion to God". Golfer Bubba Watson tweeted his support for Broussard.
So here we are in 2013: point, counterpoint. It's the sort of tango the media, both social and traditional, revel in. ESPN has a respectable stable of basketball writers who could have appeared on a panel show to discuss Collins, but it chose Broussard because it knew of his virulent anti-gay stance. Frankly, I could care less about what is said to spin the news cycle. It's actions, not words, which define us. Collins is a free agent who finished the season with the Washington Wizards, but is without a team. What NBA team will be courageous enough to hire a 34-year-old back-up who averaged nine minutes per game and who will be a huge distraction in both a positive and negative way? A damn courageous team, that's who. Only time will tell.
And it's certainly noble and courageous of Bryant and Nash to speak out on his behalf. But both are future Hall of Famers who have no fear for job security. The rank and file in the NBA has not yet weighed in on the Collins issue and I can't say I blame them. If you are a marginal NBA player you certainly don't need the stigma of being an activist attached to your name and affecting your livelihood. Despite its best efforts, the world of sports is still very much old school.
Imagine Broussard having to write a story on a game that Collins has an impact on. How can he objectively do his job when is he writing about a man who he has openly called a sinner? Will NBA commissioner David Stern, who publicly and vociferously supported Collins, covertly force a team to hire Collins to show how enlightened the league is? There are reported to be large numbers of gays in other professional sports who, like Collins before, are publicly living in denial. It's a tormented and lonely existence. So how many other active athletes will follow Collins' lead and come out now?
So many questions are yet to be answered. But the great thing about Collins coming out is he is now forcing those questions to be asked. As a society, the only way to grow and progress is through an insatiable curiosity and an enduring quest for justice and freedom. Jason Collins is free now. Only time will tell if the world of sports is as well.