It may be premature to rank what Jason Collins did this week with what Jackie Robinson accomplished in bringing down the racial barrier in professional baseball 66 years ago.
After all, when Robinson became the first black athlete to wear a Major League uniform it was only the beginning — the start of a long journey through brush-back pitches, fan persecution, biased umpiring and aggressive play by those who wanted more than to win. They wanted Robinson out of the game.
But that is not to diminish either the significance or courage behind what Collins did in becoming the first professional athlete to come out as gay. More than the power of the statement was the power of the words he chose.
“I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport,” the 34-year-old NBA veteran and Stanford graduate wrote in Sports Illustrated. “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.”
Collins' hand has been known for dunking basketballs and blocking shots during four seasons at Stanford and 12 in the NBA. Now it's known for another kind of power — acknowledging who he is, in hopes of making it easier for those who come after him do the same.
So far, Collins has received plenty of applause off the court, from President Barack Obama in the East to NBA star Kobe Bryant out West. But that's no guarantee that the road ahead will be easy for Collins, who, at the moment, remains a free agent. If and where he plays next is uncertain. But as he noted, as a veteran, he has “earned the right to be heard.”
“I'll lead by example and show that gay players are no different from straight ones,” he pledged. “I'm not the loudest person in the room, but I'll speak up when something isn't right. .
Collins deserves applause for getting this conversation of inclusion and tolerance started in professional sports. One hopes that it will be a quick dialogue, so players and fans can get back to what really matters in sports — the score.