BY MICHELLE KAUFMAN, MKAUFMAN@MIAMIHERALD.COM
Jason Collins has spent his entire career battling for space on the basketball court against some of the biggest, most powerful men in the sport. But nothing the 7-foot center did in 12 years in the NBA required the courage that it took to write three simple sentences that broke a loud silence that had permeated men’s sports locker rooms for decades:
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
Those were the opening words of Collins’ essay that will run in the May 6 issue of Sports Illustrated. The magazine published the article online Monday, and within minutes, it had gone viral, and set off a social media ovation from admirers ranging from former President Bill Clinton to NBA stars Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant to tennis legends Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King.
Collins, who played for the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards this season, is the first openly gay active male athlete in any of the major U.S. team sports — a world considered one of the last bastions of homophobia in American society, a world where just last month Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice was fired for, among other things, spewing gay slurs at his players.
Female athletes such as Navratilova and King came out long ago. Baylor basketball star Brittney Griner recently revealed she is a lesbian. And a handful of retired male athletes have come out, including the NFL’s Dave Kopay, Major League Baseball’s Billy Bean, and the NBA’s John Amaechi.
But no man still playing in one of the four biggest U.S. sports had come out until Monday.
“I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different,’ ” Collins wrote. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand …
“I’ve been asked how other players will respond to my announcement ... The simple answer is, I have no idea … I hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”
The response was overwhelmingly positive.
The Heat’s Wade wrote: “Jason Collins showed a lot of courage today, and I respect him for taking a stand and choosing to live in his truth #NBAfamily.”
Kobe Bryant tweeted: “Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others #courage #support.”
Retired tennis star Andy Roddick was even more succinct: “Props! @Jasoncollins34.”
By the end of the day, Collins had received a phone call from President Barack Obama and praise from other politicians and entertainers.
Former President Bill Clinton, whose daughter, Chelsea, was a classmate of Collins at Stanford, issued this statement: “Jason’s announcement [Monday] is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT community. ... I hope that everyone, particularly Jason’s colleagues in the NBA, the media and his many fans extend to him their support and the respect he has earned.”
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.”
Collins said he was partly inspired to come out by Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), who was Collins’ college roommate at Stanford. When Kennedy, who is straight, told Collins he had marched in the 2012 Gay Pride Parade in Boston, Collins was envious. “I was proud of him for participating,” he wrote, “but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn’t even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator. … I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, ‘Me, too.’ ”
Gay activists across the country responded to Collins’ essay, each expressing hope that his announcement would lead to more tolerance in the testosterone-driven culture of men’s pro sports.
GLAAD, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender media advocacy organization, said in a statement: “ ‘Courage’ and ‘inspiration’ are words that get thrown around a lot in sports, but Jason Collins has given both ideas a brand new context,” said Aaron McQuade, head of GLAAD’s sports program. “We hope that his future team will welcome him, and that fans of the NBA and sports in general will applaud him.”
Billie Jean King said: “I am thrilled Jason was able to come out on his own terms … This is a day of celebration for the LGBT community and for all of us. I look forward to the day when the news of anyone coming out, is a non-issue and once we reach that point we will know we have arrived.”
Navratilova was outed in a newspaper in 1981, urged by tennis executives to keep quiet, and suffered financial consequences from sponsors who shied away. She tweeted Monday: “Well done JC. You are a brave man. And a big man at that. 1981 was the year for me — 2013 is the year for you.”
Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com, a gay sports website, described Collins’ announcement as “super-significant.”
“There are still many people who have said you can’t be openly gay in professional sports,” Zeigler said. “Now you have someone who is gay saying no, it’s going to work and I’m going to make it work.”
Not all of the reaction was positive.
Soon after the news broke of Collins announcement, Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace Tweeted, “All these beautiful women in the world and guys want to mess with other guys … smh” and “I’m not bashing anybody don’t have anything against anyone. I just don’t understand it.”
In less than 15 minutes, both tweets were taken down. That didn’t halt the Twitter-message board-sports radio noise as fans and sports media either a) criticized Wallace’s point of view or b) defending his right to express his point of view. Wallace later tweeted: “Never said anything was right or wrong I just said I don’t understand! Deeply sorry for anyone I offended.”
Later Monday afternoon, the Dolphins issued a statement:
“Mike Wallace has apologized for his comments, and we have addressed the matter with him. Mike’s comments do not reflect the views of the Miami Dolphins. We believe in a culture of inclusiveness and respect, and any statements to the contrary are in no way acceptable to our organization. We will address the entire team about our policy of inclusion and make sure they all understand the importance of respecting individual choices.”
Wallace is the latest in a list of athletes whose public anti-gay sentiment led to education.
In 2007, former NBA all-star guard Tim Hardaway said in a radio interview: “I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic.” After a strong backlash, he met with gay leaders to broaden his mind and has preached tolerance ever since.
Marlins starting pitcher Kevin Slowey feels clubhouse attitudes have changed. “I think guys in the clubhouse, we worry a whole lot more about how you are as a teammate, how you are as a player, how you are as a person, than what you choose to do outside the clubhouse, or the kind of life that you choose to lead.
“Certainly the landscape has changed over the last 10 years … That’s the beauty of the game, that it mirrors society at large and you get to evolve as society does.”
C.J. Ortuño, executive director of SAVE Dade, the county’s largest gay-rights group, said Collins’ decision could lead to a major attitude shift.
“We’ve always talked about these final frontiers on LGBT issues: law enforcement, any paramilitary structures and, of course, sports. And in particular professional sports. We were waiting for the opportunity of a professional athlete to come out. We have that opportunity now.”
Kevin McClatchy, former chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Pirates and chairman of McClatchy Co., parent company of The Miami Herald, publicly came out as a gay man in 2012.
He said: “It’s a significant moment in sports and particularly for younger people in sports. This barrier has been broken and they can think about a career in professional sports.”
Miami Herald writers Steve Rothaus, Clark Spencer, and David J. Neal contributed to this report.