A year ago, almost to the day, Jason Collins sat in his living room in the hills above Los Angeles, absently palming a basketball as he talked to two Sports Illustrated staffers. Collins was preparing to announce publicly that he was gay. He betrayed no nerves. There were no sighs of resignation. There were more laughs than tears.
But there was trepidation. Collins would be the first openly gay male athlete in a major U.S. team sport to come out. And, yes, that's a lot of qualifiers, but his act was still unprecedented. This was uncharted terrain, terra incognita. There was no template, there were no data points to help answer the questions. Would this announcement deprive Collins of a roster spot? How would teammates -- past, present, and potentially future -- respond? What sort of reaction would he generate when he ventured into arenas? "I guess we'll see," he said, again and again. "I guess we'll see."
Less than 12 months later, we've seen plenty. Collins' first-person story announcing that he was gay ran on this website at 11 a.m. on April 29. By lunchtime, he had heard from multiple U.S. presidents, dozens of colleagues, hundreds of athletes in the Republic of Sports, and countless strangers. A symphony of support overwhelmed a few dissonant strains of criticism. It was a big story for a few days. Then the public collectively wished him well and the news cycled elsewhere. The door was hardly blasted off its hinges, but it had been unlocked.
By February, it was pried open a bit more by Michael Sam, the Missouri football star. The reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Sam announced he was gay in advance of the NFL Draft. That, too, was unprecedented, and that, too, was a big story. Until a few days later, when our attention was diverted elsewhere.
Last week, the door opened further. UMass shooting guard Derrick Gordon entered a team meeting with his coach, Derek Kellogg. Surrounded by his teammates, he told them a secret that, it's believed, no other active male athlete in Division I college basketball, baseball or hockey had shared with a team. He was gay.
"I was thinking about summer plans and just being around my teammates and how it was going to be," Gordon told ESPN. "I just thought, 'Why not now? Why not do it in the offseason when it's the perfect time to let my teammates know and everybody know my sexuality.'"
One of the striking components of Michael Sam's story: for an entire season, his teammates were aware of his sexuality. They didn't gossip or run to social media. It didn't disrupt a team that went on to outperform all expectations. Sprawling research suggests that views on sexuality often break down by generation. To kids today, it's just not that big a deal.
In a different way, it seems this indifference manifested itself on the UMass team, too. A friend of Gordon's says the guard was teased by teammates this season -- so much so that he nearly quit the team. But not because of his sexuality. Because of Gordon's dogged insistence, until last week, that he was straight. "If he had been out," says the friend, "[the teasing] wouldn't have happened."
It's too tidy, simply to say "we don't care anymore." On multiple networks, Gordon's name crawled across the bottom of TV. It was 7 a.m. in California and outsports.com was already having its biggest traffic since Michael Sam's announcement. We still care. And coming out still takes great rations of courage.
But Gordon's announcement is not as big a deal as Sam's, which wasn't as big a deal as Collins. The same way the Brittney Griner's announcement last year was not the cause celebre that Sheryl Swoopes' announcement was in 2005. The cycle perpetuates and, as we become increasingly comfortable. This is how progress rolls.
What's more, as athletes have come out, it's given rise to something resembling a club. The weekend before Sam came out, he spent time in L.A. He went running with Collins. (Collins, say sources with first-hand knowledge, kicked his ass.) He had dinner with Billy Bean, the openly gay former Major Leaguer and Wade Davis, an openly gay former football player who now heads You Can Play. Chris Kluwe, the former Minnesota Viking, was there as a "straight ally." Same for Brendon Ayanbadejo. They all had the same essential message: if you're ready, do it.
Likewise, Gordon was in New York last weekend and met with a group that included Davis and Patrick Burke, who works in the NHL department of player safety and is an activist devoted to eradicating homophobia in sports. Another hoops guy was there, too, Anthony Nicodemo, an openly gay high school coach in New York. "Derrick saw how great it is to come out," says Cyd Zielger of Outsports, "and he saw how possible it is to come out."
Jason Collins wanted to be there and share the message. But he couldn't make it. He was in Miami and he had a game to play.