Instantly positioning himself as a prime role model for many young male athletes across America, NBA Center Jason Collins of the Wizards came out as gay in his genuine, heartfelt Sports Illustrated article, published online yesterday. In the article, Collins shares his experiences of coming out to his family members, the ongoing struggle of choosing the right time to publicly come out, and the trepidation of coming out to the NBA and his fans. Despite being unsure of how his teammates and fans would react, Collins wrote, “I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance, and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, ‘Me, too.”
In this article he makes it clear he does not want to be labeled. He wants simply to be known by his “character and the kind of person [he is].” Despite this, I am sure some youth who plays basketball and is struggling with their own sexual orientation has labeled Collins as a role model and someone to relate to. Many professional athletes have come out over the years, but Collins is the first male who is professionally playing in one of the “big four” sports to do so publicly. The response thus far from members of the sport and larger community has been positive.
So why are we thrilled about this? The Foundation for Global Sports Development understands and embraces the life-changing power sport can bring to a child’s world. We try in so many ways to make sport more accessible to youth across the world. However, we know that for many young athletes who identify as gay or lesbian, the world of sports is not necessarily welcoming. Homophobia is particularly rampant in male-dominated sports whose culture promotes the gender stereotypes. It is easy to wonder how many budding athletes have quit a sport due to intimidation, or how many have silently struggled, much in the same way Jason Collins did for so many years. In the Sports Illustrated article, Collins acknowledges the difficulties and teachable moments ahead by saying, “Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it’s a good place to start. It all comes down to education. I’ll sit down with any player who’s uneasy about my coming out. Being gay is not a choice. This is the tough and at times the lonely road.”
As more athletes who are already accepted for their skill and success in sport come out, we hope that young gay athletes everywhere will take notice. We especially hope coaches, teammates, parents, and fans will also hear this message: When it comes to playing sports, let’s focus on the game and how we can best uplift all of the game’s players — not tear them down.