PhotoNBA center Jason Collins came out on April 29, 2013, becoming the first openly gay male athlete who is still active in a major American team sport. On the day after Jason Collins made history by becoming the first active athlete in any of America’s four major sports leagues to acknowledge that he’s gay (see my column here), he hopped on the phone from Los Angeles to talk briefly with me about the reaction to his announcement, and the road he traveled to this juncture. Where are you right now? I’m driving from my house, on my way to go work out. I’m one of those people who likes a routine and my routine in the summertime is working out. So yesterday, obviously, being the day that it was, I missed a workout. What about the reaction to your coming-out has most surprised or impressed you? I expected some support for my teammates, from my coaches, but to get all the support from every single person I talked to . . . from the NBA family, the Stanford family . . . It’s been overwhelming, and then beyond that, it doesn’t get any bigger than the leader of the free world giving you a call and saying you did a good thing, congratulations—that I did something not only to help myself but to empower others, to help others. It’s just remarkable and overwhelming. Did you have much of a heads-up or expectation that President Obama would call? Where were you when the call came in? That was out of the blue. I spoke with President Clinton yesterday, but I’ve had a relationship with the Clinton family. Chelsea and my brother’s wife were bridesmaids in each other’s weddings. They (the Clintons) came to my graduation party at Stanford. I’ve known the Clinton family and President Clinton said he would reach out to the Obama administration. And I spoke with Valerie Jarrett yesterday and I assumed that that was it…. (Then, at his agent’s house)… we get a call. A woman identified herself and said, Can you hold for the president? Sure! A part of me in the back of my mind thought this was going to be the biggest practical joke ever. But then the president gets on the line and his voice is so distinctive, the way he talks. It was amazing. While most reaction has seemingly been positive, some wasn’t. Were you aware that Chris Broussard of ESPN said you weren’t a Christian if you’re openly and actively gay, and what’s your response? My response is, first, I am a Christian. I know other gay and lesbian members of the community, the LGBT community, who are practicing Christians. This is all about tolerance and acceptance and America is the best country in the world because we’re all entitled to our opinions and beliefs but we don’t’ have to agree. And obviously I don’t agree with his statement. This is where the discussion begins. … People are my advocate and they’re saying, you know, he’s a great teammate and it shouldn’t and it doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter and it doesn’t matter what his sexual orientation is, but it’s just about the person, it’s about the teammate, it’s about this guy is all about the team and making the team better and helping us win basketball games and that’s where the conversation should go. You said on “Good Morning America” that you don’t know of any other gay pro basketball players. Could there really not be any others, or is that an illustration of how tightly shut the closet door is in sports? Statistically speaking, I am probably not the only one. Statistically speaking. But since no one else has raised their hand, you don’t know for sure. But statistically speaking, I would say I’m 99.9 percent sure there are others. So why are none of them out? Why does sports seem to lag behind so many other arenas of society in terms of having openly gay people in it? You know that you’re going to put yourself out there. Coming out is a difficult decision, period, regardless of what your profession is. I describe it as baking in the oven, you just need more time to develop to be comfortable in your own skin, to be comfortable in your own private life. . . . Anytime you’re a professional athlete you’re already in the spotlight. And some guys like me might have felt, you don’t want to be a distraction. At the end of the day it’s all about winning basketball games and your professional conduct and your work ethic. Making your private life public—it’s funny, I’ve been playing a game on my iPad called Domino with one of my teammates. You send it, you go back and forth, sometimes it takes a week to finish the game. Yesterday I make this big statement and I go back to Domino on my iPad and it’s my turn in the game. And then I play and I send it and it’s his turn. So I made this big declaration but—our relationship, nothing’s changed. I hope someday that’s what this turns into, being gay. You said in your Sports Illustrated article that over the years, you didn’t tell anyone in basketball that you were gay. But were you able to have a gay romantic life outside of basketball? A circle of friends that included gay men? That question speaks to my private life, and I’m not going to answer. I know the question you’re asking. For me, I don’t want to talk about specifics in my private life. I’ve had friendships. I definitely have friends who are gay. Are you ready for all the scrutiny that comes with the precedent you’ve set? With the role you’ve taken on? I hope so. (Laughs.) It’s kind of hard to reverse course right now. I’m just going to be myself. I think that’s what’s most important, that I live my honest, genuine life. You make a decision to try to make yourself happy in life. You’re not going to be able to please everyone. You said in the article that you’d “endured years of misery.” What did you mean by that? It’s tough to live a lie. It’s really tough: I describe it as you know the sky is blue but you tell yourself it’s red. It’s an insane logic. It’s tough to continue to live with lies and half-truths. It weighs on you. You put on a mask, but at the end of the day, you’re not happy telling yourself a lie over and over again to the point where I am now being honest and truthful and not having to have a censor button, it’s liberating. Some smart commentary after your announcement noted how helpful it could be that the first openly gay major-league athlete is also black, because young gay black men can’t look around and see as many prominent openly gay black men as openly gay white men. Did you notice and were you struck over the years by that lack of examples? I was fortunate. Like most people, you look to your family first, and I had an uncle who was gay. My uncle Mark, who lives in New York. So I had a great role model who I knew I would eventually be able to talk to. And he’s been in a long-term relationship with his partner. They recently got engaged. Since I’ve been in high school, they’ve been together. So I had that role model in my uncle already. I’ve been very blessed. I didn’t have to look far. You’re a free agent. Let’s say you don’t get picked up for the next season. Will you ever know for sure whether coming out was a factor? I’m sure that teams will look at my basketball, look at what I have to offer. My role in the NBA is as a backup center, and I know that I’ll be ready at any moment. Seeing the Tweets yesterday from my teammates, the Wizards, going all the way back to my teammates from the Nets, to Jason Kidd: they talk about what a great teammate I am. Is it possible this disclosure—this new honesty, and the freedom it brings—will make you a better player? I think so. They’ll look at me and think: this guy’s speaking honestly . . . My teammates look at me sort of like Yoda a little bit. The old veteran. The old guy who can still get it done. I impart my knowledge. I’ve earned that right as a 12-year NBA veteran. Several readers wrote to me this morning not just to express admiration for you, but to point out that you’re able to do this because of many men and women who came out when it was much riskier and carried a potentially bigger price. Do you feel indebted to them, and to anyone in particular? I’m a black gay male, so there are so many people from the civil rights movement and then also from the gay rights movement. And sports figures. The list goes on and on. There are too many names to mention. Martina Navratilova. I’m a huge fan of hers. And even today with Brittney Griner, Esera Tuaolo, Robbie Rogers, Dave Kopay. There are so many people who have come before me both as a black male and then as a gay male, who have sort of paved the road for me . . . Now it’s time for me to pave the road for somebody else, to be a great teammate, society being the team. It’s my responsibility to acknowledge those who came before me, give credit to them, and then there are those who are going to come after me, and it’s my responsibility to lift them up.
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