Jason Collins: The bold first step to “Meh”

The first of (hopefully) many.

The first of (hopefully) many.

Thank God for something substantial to keep Tim Tebow’s being cut by the Jets from taking up all the sports talk today.

The big news today — one of the year’s biggest sports stories in America — is that, for the first time ever, a male athlete in one of the country’s four major sports leagues has come out as gay while still playing.

With all the talk about the possibilities of a football star coming out — recently released Baltimore Ravens linebacker and longtime gay-rights advocate Brendon Ayanbadejo said that as many as four current NFL players could come out simultaneously soon, and the LGBT-friendly Deadspin has been getting mileage out of the possibility that Arizona’s Kerry Rhodes, one of the league’s top shutdown corners, is gay — no one saw it coming from a journeyman pro, and certainly not from the NBA.

But here it is: Jason Collins, a 12-year free-agent center out of Stanford who played for his fifth and six pro teams (Celtics and Wizards) this past season, sat down with Sports Illustrated’s Franz Lidz and told his story. (The print version comes out Thursday.)

Collins is a big man — an even 7 feet — but no bigger than he is today. He took it upon himself, and in the month of Jackie Robinson, no less, to be the one to open the floodgates to acceptance and ending the titillation about sexual identity and taking the huge step toward ending public prejudice once and for all.

As someone who faced all the fears of coming out in recent years (sure, transgender isn’t gay, but we, as groups, have historically shared the same set of abuses) — and who has been rewarded with more love, acceptance and respect than I ever imagined were possible — I couldn’t be happier for him. He will receive a lot more of that love and support and respect than he could have ever thought, and while athletes are traditionally prone to wacko hate mail and terrible tweets without coming out, the percentage of haters will be small. The world is his.

Congratulations, Jason — you’ve taken the first big step to “Meh.” And I mean that in the best way possible. As in, a couple years from now, being an out gay pro athlete will be no big thing, just as it’s no big thing to be a black quarterback anymore.

*****

I’m sure there are quite a few female athletes and their fans saying “So?”

After all, the top pick in the WNBA draft, Baylor great Britney Griner, told SI the same thing a couple weeks ago on draft night to much, much less fanfare. In her case, her public self-outing was more a casual public conversation, a low-key way of saying in an interview something that everyone around her knew all along. Sheryl Swoopes was the first out player in the league back in 2005, and Chamique Holdsclaw was also out while playing.

But in the macho world of men’s sports? That’s an oh, hell, no!

Oddly (ironically?) enough, until today, the only big-league team athlete in the world I can think of who came out while still playing was the since-retired Welsh rugby star and national captain Gareth Thomas. From the coal country of Wales, one of the most rugged of players in the most rugged of team sports — go figure. But coming out did end his torment and save his life.

As for the Land of the Free: Male American team sports have had a scant few players who came out, but only when their careers were over: former Washington running back David Kopay (the first big-sport athlete to come out, in 1977); his former Washington teammate (and lover), tight end Jerry Smith (whose teammates knew, but who was, for all intents, only publicly outed when he died of AIDS complications in 1987); fellow ex-Washingtonians Roy Simmons, Wade Davis and onetime GM David Slattery; onetime Packers lineman Essra Tuaolo; former 49er and Raider Kwame Harris, who was only outed after his arrest for domestic abuse this past winter; another journeyman NBA center, John Amaechi; baseball infielder Billy Bean (not to be confused with his onetime minor-league teammate, Oakland A’s general manager and Mr. Moneyball, Billy Beane); and baseball’s first out ex-player, former Dodger outfielder Glenn Burke, who died of AIDS-related illness in 1995. Of course, there have been other athletes in other sports who’ve come out after their playing days, most notably Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King.

But that was the extremely short list — a raindrop in a desert thunderstorm compared to a world where it’s long been estimated that gays make up roughly 10 percent of the population. After all, who would dare risk their careers — their relatively short window of earnings potential, between salary and endorsements — by saying “I’m gay” while still playing?

Is there empirical proof that gay players have been pushed out of sports because of their sexual identity? No. But Burke, who became a beloved figure in gay circles in San Francisco in his final years, said in an interview the year before his death that he was forced out of the game by prejudice after he was traded to Oakland.

As a transwoman, I know the taunts — the “You faggot,” implied or overt — from childhood, and I wasn’t gay, nor was I even overtly effeminiate until after I came out. Proof or not, physical presence or not, they’re there. In essence, the slurs mean “You’re an alien. You don’t belong here.” And especially in sports, even in 2013 (and in San Francisco, no less!) where male athletic prowess has long gone hand-in-hand with this perception of what the standard of manliness is supposed to be.

And let’s not even talk about the abuse and the violence — sometimes deadly — that black gays and transpeople in this country traditionally have encountered on a regular basis in everyday life, more than any other demographics. (Again, I’m lumping the two mostly separate groups together because of the shared set of abuse.) Which makes the fact that the first out player is someone from the most predominantly African-descended league in sports all the more powerful.

As the cliche goes, this changes everything, Collins’ coming-out. Officially in the public eye, gay male team athletes in America are no longer an abstract. They have a human face. The first of many.

Even if the pro sports world — which has been at the forefront of the civil rights (Marion Motley and Bill Willis with the Browns, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode with the Rams, all four a year before Robinson joined the Dodgers) — now finds itself behind the societal curve on a different plane of civil rights. I mean, hell, if gays and lesbians can now openly serve in the military — in real, honest-to-God-and-Satan, life-or-death battle — why can’t athletes be themselves, hetero or gay or somewhere in between, in the make-believe world of people playing games? (And let’s not drag Leviticus into this — puhleeeeeze.)

The sports world won’t be behind the curve for very long. Collins opened the floodgates. Now it’s time for a superstar — or a few — to swim through.

*****

In the early 2000s, before my move to California, I would spend a few days the week before Memorial Day every year in Provincetown — to take in the sights, to take advantage of the prime whale-watching season at the Stellwagen Bank, to enjoy civilization there when all the shops and restaurants were open but before the tourist rates kicked in … and, in my days when I wasn’t sure whether my situation was fetish or for real, to take my first tentative steps out in the world as my femme self when it didn’t involve Hallowe’en.

And for two years in a row (I think 2002-03), this happened on the very day I was driving back home.

The tape deck on my Celica had crapped out, but I was able to pull in WFAN, New York’s pioneer sports talk station, on the car radio. And the afternoon was taken up with “Mike & the Mad Dog.”

And this one afternoon, as I meandered along the scenic route along the south side of the Cape, the hot topic on the air back in New York was the possibility, the rumor, that a Mets player was gay. It was Robbie Alomar. And the next year — same topic, same fevered conversation, except the player was Mike Piazza. But without fail — two successive years, the week before Memorial Day, the particular day when I was driving home from P-town — the talk was about a possibly gay Met. Deja vu all over again …

Well, New York’s next. Or some other major metropolitan area. And it’ll be a superstar. And it’ll be a huge topic of conversation — talk-radio fodder, tweets of support or bigotry, the focal point of cheers and some boos, maybe an appearance with Bryant Gumbel or on Outside the Lines — and then it’ll be a non-story. For good. On to the next thing. In a short time, labeling someone as “gay athlete (insert name here)” will sound as silly as referring to “black quarterback (insert name here)” does now.

And whoever does it owes Jason Collins a huge dinner at some point.

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