Jason Collins is first, but he won't be last. Heck, someday we may even argue about whether he was first. The first active American male team-sports athlete to announce he is gay, Collins may be the second or third to actually play in a game.
Collins won't play his next NBA game until this fall. By then, other athletes will probably announce they are gay.
Why? Because they are. Because they can say it. And because, as Collins is surely finding out, most of America is fine with it.
Of course Collins got some nasty responses. But those are not representative of most people in the public or in his league. The majority opinion almost always drowns out the minority. This has been true throughout history. It is why, for many years, athletes like Collins were scared to come out. They feared that the majority of fans and athletes hated gay people.
Well, views have shifted. Now the vast majority of Americans have accepted homosexuality. Sure, we're still arguing over gay marriage. But most of us have stopped arguing about gay existence.
For proof, we turn to an unlikely source: Miami Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace, who tweeted this in the wake of SI's story about Collins:
All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys SMH...
As anti-gay rhetoric goes, this was minor. Collins may hear the same thing from friends and teammates who feel comfortable enough to joke with him. They may point to a particular hot cheerleader, laugh and ask if he has changed his mind. I've heard much more offensive jokes in locker rooms. Anyway, the telling thing was what happened next.
First came the backlash toward Wallace.
Then he deleted his tweet.
Then he tweeted:
Never said anything was right or wrong I just said I don't understand!! Deeply sorry for anyone that I offended
The majority opinion drowns out the minority. The same forces that worked against men like Jason Collins for years are now working for them. He didn't have to respond to Wallace; people responded for him.
It is now far more acceptable for an athlete to say he is gay than for an athlete to say he won't play with a gay teammate. Niners defensive back Chris Culliver discovered this during Super Bowl week, when he said he didn't want to play with "that sweet stuff," meaning a gay teammate. Culliver spent the next 48 hours digging himself out from under a media avalanche.
When Culliver made his comments, I called former NBA star Tim Hardaway. Several years ago, Hardaway made some harsh anti-gay comments, and the backlash was severe enough that Hardaway decided to educate himself about homosexuality. His views have changed radically. He told me he was wrong several years ago, and that gay people deserve the same rights that heterosexuals have.
Hardaway, who now works for the Miami Heat, also said this:
"If people on teams were to come out, people would get over it and accept it and move forward. I really do think that. Any sport. If one person or two people, whoever, comes out in any sport, that sport will accept it and go from there."
That is about to happen. The world of sports is more open-minded than most of society. The delay on an openly gay athlete was an aberration. People of all races and religions generally mix better in the athletic arena than in the world at large. And the world of the NBA is especially open-minded. The NBA was always the most likely of our four major leagues to break this barrier. NBA players are more free to express themselves than players in other sports. Basketball coaches are not as obsessed with distractions as, for example, football coaches.
And a couple of prominent teammates can control an NBA locker room. Kobe Bryant tweeted his support of Collins Monday, and you can be sure that if any Laker announces he is gay, Bryant will voice that same support, and the issue will be resolved. Nobody crosses Kobe Bryant on the Lakers.
In 2007, LeBron James told the Akron Beacon Journal, "With teammates, you have to be trustworthy. If you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, you're not trustworthy. It's the locker room code; it's a trust factor." Much has changed since 2007, however, and James' thinking has no doubt evolved. He prides himself on being inclusive. He was stung by the criticism when he left Cleveland and lost in the 2011 NBA Finals, and I think it would bother him even more if people thought he was hateful.
In the NBA, as long as the stars support you, you will be fine. Stars have Jason Collins' back.
Support for Collins is so strong that he is now more likely to get an NBA job next year, not less likely. Free agents only need one contract offer. Some team will want to employ the first openly gay NBA player.
If you think this all just isn't a big deal, you are absolutely right ... but also wrong. It's not a big deal because athletes don't make out with people in the middle of a game, so who cares what they do afterward? But it's a big deal because nobody has done this before.
Jason Collins is a trailblazer. But in the next few years, that trail will get awfully crowded.