Jason Collins remembered the sting he felt as a closeted athlete when teammates used homophobic slurs in the locker room.
“It felt horrible,” he said.
After becoming the first active NBA player to come out as gay in 2013, Collins has devoted himself to helping make sports a more open and welcoming environment. Now retired, he has become an ambassador for LGBT acceptance in sports, speaking at various team events, including the Sky’s diversity and inclusion night last weekend.
Since Collins announced he is gay in a Sports Illustrated cover story, other sports figures also have come out.
Former Missouri football player Michael Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted although he was cut before he played in an NFL game.
Derrick Gordon became the first male Division I basketball player to come out when he played at UMass in 2014. Former NFL lineman Ryan O’Callaghan recently came out by telling his heart-wrenching story about the anxiety he faced as a closeted athlete.
WNBA stars Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Diana Taurasi have come out.
But no current player in the four major male sports leagues — MLB, NFL, NBA or NHL — has followed Collins’ lead.
Collins, 38, believes that will change as long as league leaders continue to advance efforts to make sports more inclusive to gay athletes.
He was inspired to “live his authentic life,” he said, because he was tired of lying and because he was living in Washington when the Supreme Court was hearing arguments on same-sex marriage.
But he said he also felt the NBA was becoming more inclusive thanks to its leadership. Former commissioner David Stern started cracking down on players using homophobic slurs. Since then many teams hold pride nights to celebrate LGBT fans, and the NBA and WNBA had a float the last two years in the New York City pride parade.
These symbolic acts don’t mean the fight is over. Collins said he would like to see every team in every league host a pride game.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” said Collins, a 7-footer who played 13 seasons. “In 29 states, you can still be fired legally for just being gay. There’s a lot of work to be done politically. In the world of sports, there’s still a lot of work to be done. We know that the locker room — male locker rooms in particular — can be extremely homophobic at times. In the NBA we talk to our players about that. There definitely still is a challenge in the locker room. I hear stories of some of the language still being used. That means we have to work that much harder.”
When the discussion of gay athletes is examined, the idea of them becoming a “distraction” is usually raised. Collins called that a “myth,” noting that there have been successful teams with gay athletes, and that the window of increased media coverage brought on by a player coming out would be unlikely to last more than a couple of weeks.
He also advises athletes who are contemplating coming out to organize a plan. He talked to John Amaechi, a former NBA player who came out in 2007 after his retirement. Amaechi played five seasons in the NBA for Cleveland, Orlando and Utah, plus three more in European leagues, and wrote a book (“Man in the Middle”) about his experience as an athlete with a secret to keep.
“I never tell someone what they should and shouldn’t do,” Collins said. “Hopefully I will show you enough examples that if you do take a step forward (you see) there’s a community waiting to accept you and support you.”
Will another gay male athlete come out soon?
“I hope,” Collins said. “In the meantime, we talk to the players. We continually send signals that the NBA as a league (is) ready to support their players, accept them and celebrate them for living authentic lives.”
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