Julia Schatz, Account Executive

Today, politicians, entertainers and many other public figures are accepted for being openly gay. People, especially younger generations, are more accepting of differences than ever before. Yet, the sports world seemed one step behind the rest of American society. Recently, several high-profile NFL players began advocating for gay rights, and suggested there were a handful of players ready to come out once someone had taken the first step. On Monday, April 29, NBA center Jason Collins made this historical first step. In a Sports Illustrated article he announced he is gay, making the NBA vet the first active openly gay male athlete in any of the four major American professional sports teams. In the article, which comes out May 6, he writes,

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.

I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. 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.”

The article, which is both articulate and powerful, demonstrates immense courage. Collins describes his process of slowly coming out and the reaction from different family members. Collins discusses his reservations, his hopes, his opinions and responses to questions that have been long-awaiting someone in his position to answer. While reading the article, your focus is not on his sexuality as he paints a picture of himself as a Christian, a member of a close-knit family, a protective older brother, a loyal teammate, a physically tough player and fierce competitor.

“I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay?”

The 7-foot, 255-pound center has spent 12 seasons in the NBA. He wears #98, which he describes as a subtle act of solidarity recognizing the notorious 1998 Mathew Shepard hate crime. Collins most recently played for the Washington Wizards, giving him a front row seat to American history as the U.S. Supreme Court deals with gay marriage legislation. “Less then three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future. Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn’t say a thing.” Although this proximity influenced his decision, Collins explains the recent Boston Marathon bombings encouraged his decision to finally come out publicly, “Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?”

After the article was published, Collins received tremendous support from the White House, the NBA, and current and former teammates.

NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement, “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.”

Similarly, the NBA Players Association issued a statement of support, “As Jason wrote, pro basketball is a family, and he has and always will be our brother. The NBPA is dedicated to fighting for the best interests of and uniting all players regardless of race, creed, color, age, national origin, or sexual orientation. Today is another example that we are intent on continuing that work. We congratulate Jason for having the courage to ‘raise his hand,’ as he wrote in his story, and start the conversation.”

Nike, who Collins has an endorsement deal with, also expressed support. “We admire Jason’s courage and are proud that he is a Nike athlete. Nike believes in a level playing field where an athlete’s sexual orientation is not a consideration.”

We know actions speak louder than words.  Whether Collins, who is currently a free agent, will continue his career on a new team is unknown. It will also be interesting to see what types of sponsorship and endorsement opportunities (if any) will come in light of his announcement. Further, whether Collins’ decision to come out will lead to more athletes in the NBA and other professional sports leagues to do so remains to be seen.

As far as reactions from fans, Collins seems prepared for the worst. His veteran wisdom shows when he pointed out a truth many athletes come to realize, “A lot of ill feelings can be cured by winning.”

During an ABC interview, Collins offered a simple piece of advice to young athletes who may be struggling with their sexuality, “It doesn’t matter that you’re gay. The key thing is that it’s about basketball,” Collins said. “It’s about working hard, it’s about sacrificing for your team. It’s all about dedication. That’s what you should focus on.” His advice applies not only to athletes at any level but to anyone who wants to live a life or pursue a dream not defined by sexual orientation.

Some have called Collin’s decision on Monday a landmark day in American civil rights, comparing it to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. Ironically (or perhaps planned by a PR insider) the movie of Jackie Robinson’s story “42” came out in theaters just a couple weeks ago. Jason Collins may become a sports legend as iconic as Jackie Robinson. If not for his abilities on the court, for his incredible act of bravery that changed the sports industry forever. I hope that one day the concept of discrimination based on sexual orientation will be as crazy as doing so based on one’s skin color.

“My motivations, like my contributions, don’t show up in box scores, and frankly I don’t care about stats. Winning is what counts. I want to be evaluated as a team player.” His greatest contribution was not on the court. Hopefully, his courageous act of honesty will help the LGBT community get the win they have long been waiting for and Collins will be remembered as much more than simply a team player. He is a leader for a generation and a group of people who, until now, had not yet found a voice in America’s professional sports teams.