Jason Collins: Why The Retiring Legend Meant So Much To The Culture

2013 was one of the biggest years in sports history for LGBT athletes, and that was due in large part to Jason Collins, then a free agent after leaving the Washington Wizards, announced to the world in a Sports Illustrated feature that he's gay. Even more, Collins added that he hoped to continue his NBA career and sign to another team.

In that moment, Collins became a one of a kind history maker for LGBT sports. Never in the history of any of the four major sports leagues in the United States had any professional player come out while still an active player, much less tried to continue their sports career after coming out.

But in 2013, such a feat was no longer out of the realm of possibility. Just the year before, President Obama had come out in support marriage equality, bolstering a surprising slew of celebrities, like Jay Z and 50 Cent, to follow Obama's lead and push for the legalization of same-sex marriage. And by the time Collins came out, the Supreme Court had struck down Prop 8 and DOMA, helping to cement the idea that America's idea on homosexuality was changing for the positive.

And in the world of sports itself, Collins was just the latest in a slew of LGBT athletes that had come out of the closet. Before 2012, it was only on the rare occasion that we Americans saw any pro athletes come out as gay or bisexual. But in 2012, it seemed that gay athletes weren't only kicking down the closet door, they were opening the flood gates to freedom as athletes like former NFL star Wade Davis, Olympic gymnastics hopeful Josh Dixon, pro boxer Orlando Cruz, and fitness guru Shaun T all came out as gay.

And the momentum continued in 2013 as Collins led another barrage of coming out tales that included athletes like WNBA star Brittney Griner, British Olympic diver Tom Daley, and WWE star Darren Young. Equally noteworthy was the fact that most of the popular coming out stories were courtesy of athletes of color

And though many of Collins comrades were either finding or had already found success in their own fields, there was still a sense of uncertainty and fear when it came to idea of a man coming out as gay and still thriving in one of the four major sports. Initially, it seemed as though Collins was fallingn victim to the typical homophobic trappings that have plagued the sports world for years as NBA team after NBA team passed on signing the free agent, forcing him sit out the first half of the NBA season and seemingly proving, once again, that America just wasn't "ready" for gay male sports star.

But all of that changed on February 23 of this year, when Collins was offered a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets, a deal which was advocated by his former teammate, former Nets coach Jason Kidd. Collins eventually signed another 10-day contract before signing on for the rest of the season. And Collins even dedicated his achievement to the memory of Matthew Shepherd by wearing No. 98 on his jersey.

Finally, after years of long waits, discouraging battles, and harsh struggles, we had a black gay man representing the community and proving that not only could gay men play sports just as well as anyone else, but also that straight people, specifically their straight male teammates, could understand and embrace them as people and comrades.

For many of us, Collins was the fulfillment of a dream that was helped realized by all of the closeted gay athletes that came before him, wishing they could live their life freely and successfully. He was proof that, once again, the black queer community is brimming with the groundbreaking human beings who are ready to change the course of history, just like we have before with movements such as the Stonewall Riots. And Collins represented the hope that he was just the first of what will be an ever-growing line of openly gay and bisexual athletes who will not only disrupt the culture of homophobia, effimiphobia and transphobia in major sports, but also lead us to a truly even and equal playing field.

So, with the recent news that Collins is retiring from an amazing 13-year career in the NBA, we congratulate and salute Collins for helping to change the world for the better.

Watch and read his official Sports Illustrated statement on his retirement below. 

"It has been 18 exhilarating months since I came out in Sports Illustrated as the first openly gay man in one of the four major professional team sports. And it has been nine months since I signed with the Nets and became the first openly gay male athlete to appear in a game in one of those leagues. It feels wonderful to have been part of these milestones for sports and for gay rights, and to have been embraced by the public, the coaches, the players, the league and history.

On Wednesday at the Barclays Center, I plan to announce my retirement as an NBA player. The day will be especially meaningful for me because the Nets will be playing the Bucks, who are coached by Jason Kidd, my former teammate and my coach in Brooklyn. It was Jason who cheered my decision to come out by posting on Twitter: “Jason’s sexuality doesn’t change the fact that he is a great friend and was a great teammate.”

Considering all the speculation about problems I might face within the locker room, Jason’s support was significant. It had been argued that no team would want to take on a player who was likely to attract a media circus from the outset and whose sexuality would be a distraction. I’m happy to have helped put those canards to rest. The much-ballyhooed media blitz to cover me unscrambled so quickly that a flack jokingly nicknamed me Mr. Irrelevant.

Among the memories I will cherish most are the warm applause I received in Los Angeles when I took the court in my Nets debut, and the standing ovation I got at my first home game in Brooklyn. It shows how far we’ve come. The most poignant moment came at my third game, in Denver, where I met the family of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student beaten to death in a 1998 hate crime on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo. For the past two years I have worn number 98 on my jersey to honor his memory. I was humbled to learn that number 98 jerseys became the top seller at NBAStore.com. Proceeds from sales, and from auctioned jerseys I wore in games, were donated to two gay-rights charities.

There are still no publicly gay players in the NFL, NHL or major league baseball. Believe me: They exist. Every pro sport has them. I know some of them personally. When we get to the point where a gay pro athlete is no longer forced to live in fear that he’ll be shunned by teammates or outed by tabloids, when we get to the point where he plays while his significant other waits in the family room, when we get to the point where he’s not compelled to hide his true self and is able to live an authentic life, then coming out won’t be such a big deal. But we’re not there yet.

Nicholas Harbor

Freelance Journalist, storyteller and blogger for 50 Shades of BLACK

www.nicholasharbor.com

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Posted on November 22, 2014 and filed under current events, LGBT, sexuality.