Perhaps the biggest worry about the future of gay rights on the biggest of stages for American role models was not if or when an active gay pro athlete would come out of the closet. It was how the acceptance (or lack thereof) might follow — and whether the inevitable moment might signal that a country was ready for a modern kind of sports hero, that other leagues might be open to what a nation of people have already come to accept. And based on the early reaction to the historic coming-out party of Jason Collins today, the NBA is ready for out sports, and so is (almost) everybody else.
"I haven't come out to anyone in the NBA," Collins writes in this week's Sports Illustrated cover story. "I'm not privy to what other players say about me." Well now he is, from other players and his league and other players in other leagues, where there are immediate signs of hope. A few major NBA players have already come out in support of Collins' coming out — the point guard and players' association leader Baron Davis, and Los Angeles Lakers' guards Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, to name just a few:
As Adam Silver and I said to Jason, we have known the Collins family since Jason and Jarron joined the NBA in 2001 and they have been exemplary members of the NBA family. Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue.
And Collins' last team, the Washington Wizards, also sent a message of support for their former center. "We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly," the team said in its official statement. "He has been a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career. Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation."
One of the more interesting parts of Sports Illustrated's story was how Collins just so happens to have former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on speed dial. Clinton released a statement shortly after the news broke: "Jason's announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT community," Clinton wrote. "It is also the straightforward statement of a good man who wants no more than what so many of us seek: to be able to be who we are; to do our work; to build families and to contribute to our communities." Another Collins connection to the political world is Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy, who he roomed with at Stanford. "For as long as I've known Jason Collins he has been defined by three things: his passion for the sport he loves, his unwavering integrity, and the biggest heart you will ever find," Kennedy said in a statement. "Without question or hesitation, he gives everything he's got to those of us lucky enough to be in his life. I'm proud to stand with him today and proud to call him a friend." (Update: The White House expressed its support, as did President Obama by phone and the First Lady via Twitter.)
Whether Collins becomes an activist or a figurehead (he'll be on Good Morning American tomorrow), well, that may not matter so much as the courageous act and the wheels it has set in motion, from the locker room of the NBA to the stands of major sports. For instance, throughout this fraught year — when the NFL has been confronting a gay player reveal of its own, when the NHL has embraced the gay community, when the MLS has seen a player come out only to immediately retire — the NBA's biggest public move toward acceptance of gay players had to do with the fans: Bryant shamed Lakers fans for using homophobic slurs. Of course, fan reaction may say as much as anything in the end in a league where the players claim to have no issue with sexual preference, CBS's Mike Freeman reported in March that an NFL player was considering coming out, but the players was worried most about the reaction outside of the locker room, rather than inside of it:
This player's true concern, I'm told, is not the reaction inside an NFL locker room but outside of it. The player fears he will suffer serious harm from homophobic fans, and that is the only thing preventing him from coming out. My sources will not say who this alleged player is.
Sports fans aren't always the most enlightened bunch when it comes to social issues, and reactions have been overwhelmingly positive so far. But there are always going to be those outspoken few who want to go and take the other side. Take Breitbart's Ben Shapiro, for instance. "So Jason Collins is a hero because he's gay?" he asked on Twitter. "Our standard for heroism has dropped quite a bit since Normandy," he added. Grantland's Jonah Keri agreed with Shapiro, sort of: "So true," he said. "At the time when Normandy happened, a man who was both black and gay might've been lynched simply for breathing the air," he added. (Jonah Keri was not actually agreeing with Ben Shapiro.) But the bigots are out there, especially in Internet comments sections, where hate breeds hate when it comes to gay rights. Take the comments on Sports Illustrated's Facebook post about the Collins story:
The magazine also disabled the comments sections on their three major Collins stories because things were getting too ugly down there. For what it's worth, the NFL's most outspoken advocate for gay rights, Minnesota Vikings' kicker Chris Kluwe, also voiced his support for Collins:
But some are waiting for reaction from the NBA's biggest star, LeBron James, who has so far remained silent in the midst of his team's playoff run. James once said some unsavory things about gays lurking in NBA locker rooms:
"With teammates you have to be trustworthy," LeBron James said several years ago when former NBA player John Amaechi came out. "And if you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy. So that's like the No. 1 thing as teammates - we all trust each other. You've heard of the in-room, locker-room code. What happens in the locker room stays in there. It's a trust factor, honestly. A big trust factor."
That quote is from when former NBA player John Amaechi came out of the closet in 2007. Collins has been in the league since 2001. He's been a gay teammate for a number of players. And as the sports world confronts its new reality, however quickly, the focus of Collins' personal journey will now turn toward finding a new team of his own. He's 34 years old, and his stats aren't the best. But he's still a capable player who just made a huge leap for the NBA as a whole. He may be forced to retire after this season if no one decides to pick him up, which might deflate the importance of today's announcement — unless everyone else around him decides to make it the springboard America's been waiting for.
Update, 2:05 p.m.: The New York Times' Nate Silver ran the numbers for Jason Collins' chances of getting resigned next year, and they aren't the best — he only has a 61 percent chance of getting picked up again.
Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins' Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Wallace earned the dubious distinction of being the first athlete to say something homophobic about Collins on Twitter. "All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys SMH…" he tweeted Monday morning, before removing the message after about thirty minutes. Wallace offered a sort of apology a few minutes later: "Never said anything was right or wrong I just said I don't understand!! Deeply sorry for anyone that I offended."
Update, 4:50 p.m.: An NFL official tells The Atlantic Wire that the league will review Wallace's comments.