American basketball player Jason Collins on Monday became the first active athlete in a major sport in the United States to come out as gay, surprising fans and possibly opening the door for other closeted sporting celebrities to step into the sunlight.
Collins, who most recently played for the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics – two teams in the National Basketball Association (NBA) – makes the revelation in a personal essay which will appear in the next issue of Sports Illustrated. It begins: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
The sportsman, who has played in the NBA for 11 years, says he was stirred to end years of pretending to be straight in part by the bombings at the Boston Marathon earlier this month.
He was also moved by seeing his former Stanford University room-mate, Joe Kennedy, a member of the famous political clan and now a US congressman for Massachusetts, marching in the annual gay parade in Boston.
“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport,” Collins writes. “But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different’. If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Even his twin brother, Jarron, who is also an NBA veteran, apparently was taken by surprise. Meanwhile, Collins’ confessions have landed him on the front cover of Sports Illustrated.
Among the first to react was Bill Clinton, whose daughter, Chelsea, studied alongside the player at Stanford University.
“Jason’s announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT community,” the former president said last night. “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.”
Martina Navratilova, the former world number one tennis star who came out publicly as gay in 1981, also congratulated Collins.
She wrote on Twitter: “Well done Jason Collins- you are a brave man. And a big man at that.”
To some, the biggest surprise of all will be the fact that Collins is the first to take such a step while still in the middle of his career. The nearest precedent may be the coming out in 2007 of another basketball player, John Amaechi. A British national, Mr Amaechi revealed that he was gay in his autobiography Man in the Middle. But he did so only after retiring from the sport.
In this case, however, the question is whether Collins coming out will have any effect on his career and whether it will spur other high-profile athletes who may be gay to follow suit.