Were you picturing a press conference complete with a phalanx of friends, family, coach, teammates, maybe even a partner—on some 50-yard line, some home plate, at center ice in Madison Square Garden? Is the man the type you envisioned? Were you fearing that he'd be too effeminate? Too butch? Too ... normal? Come on now: We all had a vague idea of what it would look and feel like when America saw its first gay man come out in a major team sport.
This is an article from the May 6, 2013 issue
Was Jason Collins ever on your short list?
Wait. Let's pause to clear the room of anyone who didn't sign up for this. We're not talking about the hard-liners who condemn homosexuality as an abomination; they're already pulling out of the parking lot. We mean the people who groan when sports become a stage for social and political change, who want their games to remain oases of simplicity in a muddled world. We've heard you for half a century, always in the wake of stories about Muhammad Ali or John Carlos or Renée Richards or Pat Tillman or apartheid or AIDS or disability. Stick to reporting on games, you invariably say. If I wanted a story about race/politics/sexual revolution, I'd read Ebony/The New York Times/The Village Voice ....
If that is you, then it bears stating outright: We are not the magazine you want us to be this week, if we ever were. Sports, after all, are where America happens. And as much as it stands as one man's emancipation proclamation, Jason Collins's statement in these pages demonstrates, like little else, that we are hardly the nation we were 10, five, even two years ago. That his decision will spark only more change, at an even higher speed, seems a dead-solid certainty. But when, as in this case, our endlessly analyzed, wildly popular world of sports finally emerges as the last, lagging indicator of a cultural shift well under way, the question bears asking: How did we get here?
"One by one, baby," said tennis great and social activist Billie Jean King in mid-April. "You've got to push—one by one by one by one. You've got to just push all the time to get a little bit of movement. And then eventually there's that tipping point where, finally, it's more of a cascade. From glacier to flood."
Indeed, with the broader culture absorbing so many recent advances—the 2011 repeal of the U.S. military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, the rocketing rise in popular support and state sanction for gay marriage—sports' absence from the conversation was becoming thunderingly conspicuous. At root, athletics is a proxy for war. When a player such as 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver feels comfortable enough to declare, as he did at Super Bowl media day in January, that he wouldn't welcome gays in his locker room ("They gotta get up outta here.... Can't be with that sweet stuff")—even after they've been seamlessly integrated into the greatest military machine in history—the proxy can only come off as spectacularly out of touch.
But now, 32 years after King was outed by her former partner in a palimony suit and instantly lost $2 million in endorsements; 15 years after the world's first openly gay soccer player, Justin Fashanu, killed himself; six years after former NBA star Tim Hardaway declared, "I hate gay people"; the figure long awaited in activist circles—and dubbed, by some, Athlete One—has arrived.
"This," says the 69-year-old King, "has been one of my prayers."
Like every person interviewed for this story—save one—she had no idea how soon it would be answered.
How will it play out? The only thing obvious now is that Collins's decision was made in an athletic climate far different from that in which King spent most of her life. Smear the Queer, after all, was a game once played anytime three kids picked up a football. But in 2011, NBA commissioner David Stern fined Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant $100,000—and then Bulls center Joakim Noah $50,000—for using antigay slurs during a game. That summer players from eight major league teams filmed spots for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth support group It Gets Better. In early April, Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice was fired after ESPN aired a tape of him physically and verbally abusing his players—"f---ing f------" and "f---ing fairies," he called them—during practices.
Culliver, too, faced 24 hours of public condemnation and a team reprimand before apologizing. But his comments drew no fine or suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell, and three weeks later employees of NFL teams at the scouting combine felt compelled to ask at least one prospect, "Do you like girls?" If nothing else, that shows that the four premier leagues have hardly evolved at society's pace.
"I think we're there," says Jarron Collins, Jason's 6'11" twin and a longtime NBA player. "The locker rooms are there. Religion, race, sexual preference—at the end of the day it comes down to this: Is that guy a good teammate? In a business sense, is there value added? My brother has proven, for 12 years, that he is. Ask his old coaches, his former teammates. He'll help you win games, and that's what you're looking for. So, I do think the NBA is ready."
In April the NHL announced its intention to be "the most inclusive professional sports league in the world," with a new initiative dedicated to LGBT outreach and education of its players and a partnership with the You Can Play Project, an organization dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports. Is hockey ready? Sean Avery was asked that question last Friday. "I think all the sports are," said the notorious agitator who, as a left wing for the Rangers in May 2011, became the first pro athlete in New York to publicly support marriage equality. "There's going to be this one individual who comes out, and in a year I'm sure there's going to be a few more, and I'm sure people are just going to be used to it. Listen, there's going to be fans who ridicule this individual—much like race is still an issue with fans and the way they talk to athletes. But six months or a year down the road it's not even going to be an issue."
If Major League Baseball and the NFL, especially, seem a step or three behind the more internationally textured winter sports, there's a widespread feeling that any player engaging in homophobic acts or dialogue in any sport would face the same—if not worse—abuse from teammates, fans and, certainly, management, as any athlete who comes out. The impassioned support from former Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and Vikings punter Chris Kluwe in the NFL, and from Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy (all marked by a deft and biting mastery of social media) has made being a straight supporter of gay rights seem downright cool.
Will there be opposition? Bet on it. But if you want to get a sense of how even old dogs can pick up a change in the wind, consider that the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Little Falls, N.J., will this week announce a new partnership with Athlete Ally, a consortium dedicated to the straight support of LGBT issues, in the fight against prejudice and homophobia in sports. The 87-year-old Berra was a close friend of racial pioneers Larry Doby and Elston Howard, and in mid-June his museum will unveil an 800-square-foot exhibit that traces a direct line from Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier to today's struggle by the likes of Jason Collins.
"Respect the game, respect others—that's what I always learned in sports," Berra said in a statement released by the museum. "Whatever background or whatever you are, it didn't matter. Treat everyone the same: That's how it should be."
IT'S CLEAR, of course, that Collins will now, and for the rest of his life, be seen more as an icon than as a player. This was always the paradox for any gay athlete working through the decision: While the long-term goal is for sexual preference to be a nonissue, the first man in one of the major team sports to come out knew that his sexual identity would overshadow his game. And Collins's status as a limited, if valued, role player guarantees it. He is no Ben Roethlisberger or Allen Iverson, players who could obscure their off-field lives with breathtaking performances. That fact alone demands that any comparison with Jackie Robinson, Hall of Famer, be handled with care.
Not that it makes Collins's road easier. In a sense, his lack of playing stature robs him of the one currency that could insulate him from whispers—all but assured if he has a disappointing season or costs a team wins—that he's a token hire, on the roster merely to allow team, league and fans to feel progressive, or that he's at career's end and trying to hang on anyway he can. The reason pro sports has been such a ripe target for gay activists, after all, is that it's the ultimate results industry. Talent is power. The more you have, the more you wield.
"It does make a difference—at least when it comes to the clubhouse," McCarthy said last Thursday. "Nobody cares what anybody does away from the field. You could be a notorious drunk, a terrible person; you could be a wonderful person, a die-hard Christian. As long as you have talent, everybody just kind of goes, 'That guy's a great player.' And everything else is just washed aside.
"It would certainly be easier to a point if you were one of those players—as opposed to a player who might be fighting for a position. Then it becomes more difficult to have this conversation. He might feel more of a burden."
Still, the Jackie linkage is inevitable—if only because media, like generals, tend to view the next war through the lens of the last. Not to mention that 42, the new film about Robinson's 1947 shattering of the color barrier, has been one of the nation's highest-grossing releases since it opened on April 12. Ayanbadejo, who since 2009 has been one of the NFL's loudest voices for marriage equality and the need to welcome a gay athlete, saw 42 right after it opened. He couldn't help but place his role in the fight within its context.
"I'm more like a Branch Rickey, a Pee Wee Reese: I'm an ally," Ayanbadejo said in mid-April. "I'm not going to be the person in the fire. But I am going to be the person who makes it a safer place."
But aside from the shattering of one of American sports' and society's thickest barriers—one that gay players such as NFL running back Dave Kopay in the 1960s and '70s, and MLB outfielders Glenn Burke in the 1970s and Billy Bean in the '80s and '90s didn't dare approach—Collins's journey figures to be very different.
The primary reason? Monday's announcement is more the exclamation point on a series of gay rights victories than the starting point. Barack Obama had long been criticized for his slow "evolving" on the matter, but it has been nearly a year since he announced his support for marriage equality and four months since he became the first President to mention gay rights in an inaugural address. When Robinson arrived at Dodgers spring training in 1947, there was nothing like Modern Family or Ellen—warm, lighthearted fare that made it easy for mainstreamers to envision everyday life alongside "those people." Desegregation of the U.S. military was still more than a year away. Black Americans' access to housing, jobs and the ballot box would remain unsettled for the next two decades.
The other distinction arises from the element of choice: Collins could decide whether and when to make his minority status known. The fights for racial and sexual equality in the public square may use similar tactics, and certainly lie on the same historic time line of expanding human rights. But as some civil rights advocates point out, Jackie Robinson had no decision to make. He was regarded as black every time a white person laid eyes on him and second-class by a large number. And once he arrived in the major leagues, an entire population of talented and impatient black players surged forward too.
ARE THERE gay players banging on the door of professional sports now? No. They're already in. Ayanbadejo is in contact with a number of gay NFL players, and his effort to have a handful come out together, within the next six months, is designed to spread the burden that Collins, for the moment, has taken on alone. In that sense, Ayanbadejo believes, a groundbreaker like Collins could well face some of what Jackie faced.
"Are people going to kick you out of hotels? Are you going to have to not take a shower? No," Ayanbadejo, 36, said in the weeks before Collins's announcement. "You're going to have to hold back your temper when people say dumb stuff to you. In public you're going to be welcome everywhere, but you might get some slurs thrown at you.
"It's going to be tough. But it's not even close to what Jackie Robinson did, because there are already gay people in the NFL. There are already gay people in the NBA, in baseball. It's not like they haven't been here. They're here. It's just that other people aren't ready to accept it yet."
Some people, surely. But at the same time there has been a sea change in the attitude of straight Americans toward homosexuality, and few active players have pushed tolerance more than Ayanbadejo. Since 2009, when he wrote a four-paragraph blog post defending same-sex marriage, he has been the NFL's go-to resource on the matter—whether it be campaigning last November in the successful movement to legalize gay marriage in Maryland or signing, with Kluwe, an amicus brief to the Supreme Court supporting the overturn of California's Proposition 8. Though he was cut by Baltimore last month and has speculated that the league is happy to see his outspokenness quelled, Ayanbadjeo has no intention of going quiet.
"If I'm not going to do it, who is?" he said. "I don't see Ed Reed or Joe Flacco jumping up to talk about this issue. Though you'd be surprised; a lot of [players] support us. But if not me, who else? I welcome it. I think it was my destiny to be an ally on this issue."
And he's not alone. In 2009, All-America wrestler Hudson Taylor of Maryland competed with a sticker for the Human Rights Campaign—the nation's largest LGBT rights organization—on his headgear, a gesture that led him to speak out and later found Athlete Ally. In November '09, Brendan Burke, the scion of one of the NHL's most respected families, came out publicly. "In the hockey world, that was the day that this fight ended," said Patrick Burke, Brendan's brother and a scout with the Flyers.
Their father, Brian, notoriously tough as a player and the Maple Leafs' general manager at the time, backed his son publicly—and then heartbreakingly, after Brendan died three months later in a car accident. For the next three summers Brian walked in the Toronto gay pride parade. A year ago, with Patrick, he founded the You Can Play Project; more than 100 pro players have since voiced support for gay teammates, whoever they may be. Praise rolled in.
"That whole 'You can't teach old dogs new tricks, that's just my generation' line of excuses is crap," Patrick said in April. "Because once it's someone you care about, once it has touched your life in some way, it's very easy to go through this evolution. Removing antigay language from my vocabulary didn't take practice. It was easy.
"I'm tired of getting credit—and of our family getting credit—for loving Brendan. I'm tired of people saying, 'Oh, he's a great dad' and 'Oh, you're a great brother' because we did the right thing. This should be the standard. This should be the baseline. When your brother comes to you and tells you, 'I'm gay,' if you say anything other than, 'Great, I love you, I don't care,' that's where the problem is."
The NHL's new partnership with You Can Play includes a commitment to integrate LGBT-friendly policies in everything from rookie symposiums to public-service announcements to educational outreach for any player—straight or gay—trying to comes to terms with issues of sexual identity.
"It's wonderful to see the sports world really jumping on board," Patrick Burke said. "The danger is that we almost skipped a step: We went from nobody talking about this in sports to now demanding that everybody in sports talk about this. The homophobic things athletes have said and been vilified for are mostly related to confusion and ignorance. We skipped the step where we sit with athletes and answer those questions."
Still, there are plenty of stories of decency. In January 2011, longtime Boston Herald sportswriter Steve Buckley wrote a column announcing he is gay. That morning he received supportive text messages from Red Sox manager Terry Francona, former pitcher Curt Schilling and infielders Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. Buckley then went on a local radio show, and Bruins legend Bobby Orr—the childhood hero of every Boston male of Buckley's age—called in to back him. A week later Orr called again, on Buckley's private line, to make sure he was good. Two days after that Orr called once more and invited Buckley to watch a Bruins game in a suite. When he arrived, Orr introduced him to all the buddies and corporate types, one by one. "This is my friend Steve Buckley," he said.
"We give these guys very little credit," Buckley said several weeks ago. "We, the media, continue to screw it up because we continue to focus on the shower room and the locker room. In April 1947, Jackie Robinson walked into a room filled with men who had never had black friends or family members they'd admit to. The difference with the openly gay male team athlete is that he's going to walk into a room filled with players who, in large measure, are waiting for him. They're tapping their feet saying, 'Where the hell is this guy?' "
MAYBE THAT'S too optimistic. Maybe a teammate with a religious or conservative bent will find an out gay athlete intolerable. Hudson Taylor speaks to teams from 50 colleges and high schools a year, and said straight athletes still ask "the shower question." More often than you would think, someone also says, "When my coach tells me to stop being a p----, that fires me up. Will this conversation take away from our competitive edge?"
Or maybe a star will be insulted that a gay player of lesser talent is getting more attention; maybe a coach will despise Jason Collins for bringing the nation's reporters crashing into the locker room and making the week, month, season about everything but basketball. Maybe.
But it's clear that tolerance is growing, fast. How did we get here? Collins's words make his route fairly clear. But what about the rest of us? Consider Paul Tagliabue. The former NFL commissioner is like every other straight person who woke up. He knew somebody. Two, actually.
The first was an older first cousin, Thomas. Tagliabue grew up hard-line Roman Catholic in Jersey City, Thomas in Brooklyn, and the two loved to go to Dodgers games. When the adults talked about Thomas in front of the kids, they spoke Italian. Divorce, cancer, homosexuality: You kept such subjects from being discussed in the open.
"He committed suicide," Tagliabue said last Saturday. "He was gay; we were growing up together in the '50s as teenagers and my uncle basically tortured his son. There's no other word for it."
Tagliabue went on to be a lawyer, did pro bono work for the ACLU, was always a student of Jesse Owens. The fact that Hitler had persecuted not just blacks and Jews but also homosexuals never left him. In 1989, the year Tagliabue took over as commissioner, his son, Andrew, came out to his parents. "I'm going from being a member of an upper-middle class family to becoming a member of the most hated group in America," Drew told them.
"So at that point you say to yourself, Why is this so? Did he do something that made him gay? Did we do something? Or was he born gay?" Paul said. "And you look back at your life and say, 'He sure as hell never did anything. We never did anything, so that must be what he is. That's the way you're born.' So we accepted it and moved on."
Tagliabue retired as commissioner in 2006, though he still serves as a consultant. He does not advise the NFL on LGBT issues, though he would if asked. In 2011 he and his wife, Chan, donated more than $1 million to Georgetown, his alma mater, for its LGBTQ (the Q is for Questioning) Resource Center, the first at a U.S. Catholic university. Last fall Tagliabue contributed $100,000 to the Maryland campaign to legalize same-sex marriage and another $50,000 to the campaign in Maine. "I think the NFL is ready," he said. The world has changed. Everybody knows somebody.
"It's no longer a secret who's gay, who's lesbian," he added. "In my own experience I see cousins who started off horrified if you said someone was gay, and then they'd find out that their next-door neighbor had a gay son or their next-door neighbors were a gay couple, and all of a sudden it's, 'Hey, he's my closest friend and it doesn't make a damn bit of difference to me. As long as he cuts his lawn—and roots for the Giants.' "
For today, this week, next season, naturally, this sporting life will feel a bit different. But take into account the human capacity for change, and the maddening, often necessary amnesia that accompanies it. Decades after Jackie Robinson, some young black baseball players were derided for not knowing the man's name—though nothing, in fact, spoke more to the totality of his impact.
"It'll be the same thing," Buckley said. "Forty years from now there'll be an openly gay athlete who'll be criticized because he doesn't know the name of the first openly gay athlete."
For posterity's sake: It's Jason Collins, free at last. And so here we are, all of us now—did you think it would happen today?—poised to leap into sport's brave new world. Ready? Here we go.
Jason Collins: the Story
More on Jason Collins's decision and the reaction to it from L. Jon Wertheim, Dan Patrick, agent Arn Tellem, Martina Navratilova and others, plus a wide-ranging fan poll. AT SI.COM