‘There is that fear’: Jason Collins, first openly gay NBA player, on why there hasn’t been a second

CHICAGO — When he awoke on the morning of April 29, 2013, Jason Collins didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of what he was about to do. The story was already told, written, ready for publication at 11:30 a.m. ET. It would change Collins’ life, because it would allow him to live authentically. But the broader implications of becoming the first active player in America’s three major pro sports leagues to come out publicly?

“I didn’t think about it in a bigger perspective until that morning, when I got back-to-back calls from Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama,” Collins says with a laugh. “Then I was like, ‘Oh, this is gonna be another level.’ ”

He did it to relieve inner turmoil, the type that comes with feeling the need to live a lie. What he didn’t realize was that it would help others relieve theirs. Not only did his announcement unshackle him. It inspired others to unshackle themselves. “I’ve definitely had people come up to me and say that they came out because they saw or read my story,” he says. And other gay athletes who are out have similar stories to tell.

Yet seven years after Collins’ reveal, no NBA player has followed the trail he blazed. Collins now works for the league as a community ambassador and believes progress is being made toward creating an LGBT-inclusive environment. Yet there are currently zero openly gay athletes in the NBA, NFL or MLB.

So I had a simple question for the 7-footer when we spoke after an NBA Cares event on Thursday of All-Star Weekend: Why is that?

The big question

Collins chooses his words carefully. He’s an affable guy, bright in almost every sense of the word. During an hour-long program with local high schoolers from underserved communities, he regularly claps or smiles. Afterward, when conversation turns to Megan Rapinoe or Dwyane Wade, his face lights up.

But to that why question, “some just aren’t ready” is the meat of his response. Then he pauses. Later, in a phone interview on the same subject, he sighs.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 26: Jason Collins speaks at the WorldPride NYC 2019 Opening Ceremony at Barclays Center on June 26, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)
Jason Collins speaks at the WorldPride NYC 2019 Opening Ceremony at Barclays Center on June 26, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

The first answer, of course, is that coming out can be extremely difficult. That every individual is different. That none should feel pressure to reveal a part of his or her private life to the world – a part straight peers never have to reveal – if he or she doesn’t feel comfortable doing so.

Yet millions of non-athletes are out. Other male celebrities are out. High-profile female athletes are out. Collins, as he makes this point, pivots right, throws his head back and arms out, and strikes a Rapinoe pose to accentuate it.

Plus, he says: “Deep down, on a human level, I think everyone knows that it is better to live an authentic life. It’s better to live a life where you can just be yourself, you don’t have these filters, you’re natural.”

His words echo Rapinoe’s. “When you're out, it's only one part of who you are,” she told Yahoo Sports last year. “But when you're not out, it's just this all-consuming thing. The deeper in the closet you are, the more you lie, the more it becomes this all-consuming thing that it really doesn't have to be, and it takes over your life.”

On that human level, Collins says, whether the aspect of self in question is sexuality or otherwise, “I would love to see an athlete live their life in an authentic way, not feel that they have to hide, not feel that they have to be afraid, or live with shame – all the other things that go with being a closeted athlete. No human being should have to walk that path.

“But there is that fear of stepping forward.”

Because stepping forward is such a rarity in men’s sports, it remains hugely important and impactful. Because it remains hugely important and impactful, a gay athlete can’t really attain the personal benefits without being bombarded with questions and shoved, willingly or unwillingly, into the role of advocate or activist.

An athlete could, of course, come out privately, to those close to him or her, without making a grand public announcement. Collins did this a year before his. But to completely escape that need to lie, a lot of people have to know. As a prominent athlete, is it possible to inform the people that matter but not the public?

Major college athletes have. But a pro?

“It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult in the day and age that we live in, where everybody has a cell phone, information can spread very, very quickly,” Collins says. “I would find that extremely unlikely for professional athletes.”

Challenges remain

And so we’re back to the subject of why, in Collins’ words, gay male athletes “just aren’t ready,” and what can be done to assuage their fears. There are, of course, many in the closet. Collins has spoken with some of them.

“I think it’s up to the rest of us to try to create that environment where those closeted athletes out there know that when they do choose to step forward, that they will be supported and championed, and continue to play the sport, continue to evolve, and not feel that they have to hide who they are,” he says.

Collins is actively involved in creating that environment. Every year, he and Athlete Ally founder Hudson Taylor speak to incoming NBA rookies, “about their language in the locker room, reminding them that this is now a workplace,” Collins explains. “Sometimes, growing up, they will hear language that is homophobic or sexist. And we have to sort of teach them how to unlearn that. Words matter.”

Leadership also matters. Commissioner Adam Silver and deputy commissioner Mark Tatum have been visible at Pride Parades. Public allyship from stars also matters. Even if it’s simply a Kevin Durant retweet of a photo from one of those Pride Parades.

Acceptance “varies sport to sport,” Collins says. And naturally, as an NBA employee, he believes his league is “at the forefront of the conversation.” But seven years after becoming the first, he is still waiting on a second. Waiting, and hoping.

“There is that fear,” he reiterates. “But,” he says of the closeted athlete, “I hope that they can look at my story, that they can look at Robbie Rodgers’ story ... Sue Bird … Diana Taurasi … whichever story is out there that can inspire you to live your authentic life, I hope that they see that, and know that they can have that, and attain that as well.”

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