Culturally, statistically and just practically, it was something that was bound to happen eventually. But when NBA player Jason Collins appeared on the May 6, 2013, cover of Sports Illustrated beside the headline “The Gay Athlete,” it was still a watershed moment. With his announcement, Collins became the first active male player in one of the four major American sports to emerge from the closet, a giant leap forward in both sports and American culture.
Now retired from basketball, Collins -- who played 22 games for the Brooklyn Nets after his landmark announcement, with his No. 98 Nets jersey reaching the top of the NBA’s sales charts -- works as an NBA Cares ambassador, spreading messages of tolerance and inclusion to players and other audiences. Earlier this year, he took time to chat with Yankees Magazine deputy editor Jon Schwartz about the lessons and the joys of the past six years, as well as the hope for a more inclusive future.
Six years later, how do you feel like the world has changed?
It’s interesting. I think more and more people in everyday lives are stepping forward and speaking their truth. For the past six years now, I’ve worked for the NBA in a different capacity, working for the social responsibility department. I talk to all the incoming rookies, and every year, we ask them a question -- how many of them have a family member or close friend who is a member of the LGBTQ community? And every year, consistently more and more hands go up in the room. So, you see that more and more people know members of the community, that have family or close friends. That’s really cool to see. However, in the big five sports leagues -- big five male sports leagues -- NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, NHL and Major League Soccer, there currently is only one out, and that is in Major League Soccer, Collin Martin for the Minnesota United. I’m in contact with other athletes who are closeted. But there’s only one currently out.
For members of the LGBTQ community, what do you think is the impact of having allies who are African American icons?
It’s very important for communities of color. I’ll take for instance, some of the biggest allies that spoke up for me. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett. When I stepped forward, their words of support -- whether publicly or privately to me -- is when other people start looking around and saying, “If it’s cool with Kobe, that means that maybe I can accept this and learn to educate myself and evolve.” A lot of people, sometimes it takes time for them to evolve. Some people might start out as being homophobic, but then because you know someone who is a member of the LGBTQ community, or you see someone who is an ally of the LGBTQ community, and then that person uses their voice, it can help change someone else’s perspective and open someone else’s eyes to be like, “OK, maybe I can start evolving on this issue.”
How did the reality of the experience of coming out publicly compare to what your expectations were?
I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if I would get support, or if I would be shunned. And when I started getting calls from some of my former teammates, or people that I played against, the first couple were from Jerry Stackhouse and Deron Williams. And hearing their reaction of support, and their words of support, really got me thinking, “OK, this could be something that will work out.” As a positive individual, I was constantly looking for signals, whether from my team, from my league, from individuals, that they would be OK with me stepping forward and speaking my truth. I knew that the league was going to be accepting because they had started fining people for using homophobic language. But I didn’t know what individual former teammates would say and do. Which is why it’s so important that people keep in mind that their words and actions are being watched, and that when you’re saying something or doing something, that there are those athletes, those friends of yours, those teammates, those brothers, who are looking for those signals that you would be supportive and accepting, and that you are going to be that person that will have someone’s back.
Were there times when you wondered about the timing of your announcement or whether you were the right person for this?
The summer before that, there was a rumor that four NFL players were going to come out as a group, sort of break the ice together and maybe start this wave of athletes stepping forward. Well, that never happened. So, I was kind of waiting for them to go first. And I just reached a point in my life where I got tired of waiting for someone else to do it. I talk about that in the Sports Illustrated article, and I think I use the analogy of being the kid in the class who has the answer but is waiting for someone else to raise their hand, and finally I just raised my hand and said, “Yeah, it’s me.”
I remember very clearly where I was when I got the push notification on my phone about your coming out on the SI cover. At the time, I remember thinking that the floodgates were going to open, that there would be a wave over the next year. Were you expecting that?
I kind of was! I remember talking with a buddy of mine, Robbie Rogers, who played in MLS. And I do remember thinking that there were going to be other athletes stepping forward. But unfortunately, that didn’t happen. My job now is to help create an environment where those athletes, some of whom I’m in contact with, feel comfortable to step forward.
The famous story with Jackie Robinson is the concern that all of a sudden, he wasn’t an individual player; he was the face of an entire race. Did you feel a similar burden?
I’m very grateful that I was in my mid-30s because, at that point in my life, I had enough maturity to handle it and to have a lot of self-discipline. And thankfully, I never had a bad interaction with a fan to my face. Of course, on social media, where people think they’re anonymous, there’s always going to be the haters. The trolls. But to my face, every single interaction I had with a fan was positive. And there was only one incident where an opponent said something inappropriate to me. Or something that I view as inappropriate, and I think that most people would agree. That individual forgot that our game is a contact sport, and I get six fouls. I got to use my fouls in that game.
Well played, literally. But after the announcement, when you stepped onto the court for an NBA game again, you were the same guy in a lot of ways. What did you feel had changed?
Honestly, once you’re in the moment, in the game itself, not much.
It goes back to what I’ve been doing since I was a little kid, why I had trained and worked so hard. What changed the most was after the game. The first game happened in Los Angeles, which is where I live, so I had my parents, a lot of family members and my boyfriend waiting in the crowd after the game. That was the biggest change. I hope that every other professional athlete gets to experience that moment. Because you’ll see just how normal it is.
When we focus on your story, or on Michael Sam’s story, do we do a disservice to the female athletes who have already taken these steps publicly?
I think it’s important to talk about because everyone is a trailblazer in their own right. When I do interviews, I try to always preface it by saying I’m the first male. But female athletes have been doing this for decades. I was just talking to Martina Navratilova last night.
That’s very impressive name-dropping!
Yeah! Casual name-dropping! But it’s also cool to see how the community of sports athletes get in touch with each other. I’ve become friends with her and Billie Jean King and so many other people who are trailblazers in so many different ways. I’ve become a huge fan of tennis, and now I see in a lot of tournaments, there’s equal prize money, and that’s largely because of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, the people who came before.
I’ve heard Billy Bean discuss the great benefit that can come from sports organizations coming out on the right side of this, both for people whose minds need to be changed, and for people who need allies. So, what do you think the Yankees can do for the LGBTQ community by reaching out?
The Yankees are arguably the biggest name in all of Major League Baseball. Everybody knows the Yankees, everyone knows the logo. To see them -- whether it’s lit up in the rainbow flag or having these conversations -- use their platform to speak up for inclusion and acceptance and equality, it’s huge. It’s absolutely huge because it will spark conversations. And the only way things will change is to have these conversations. So, seeing the Yankees use their platform will definitely continue, if not spark, conversations.