NBA center Jason Collins has become the first male U.S. athlete in a major professional sport to come out as gay.
The 34-year-old, a free agent who has played with the Washington Wizards and the Boston Celtics this past season, tells Sports Illustrated:
"I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, 'I'm different.' If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand."
Collins continues, "When I was younger I dated women. I even got engaged. I thought I had to live a certain way. I thought I needed to marry a woman and raise kids with her. I kept telling myself the sky was red, but I always knew it was blue."
As to why he opted to address his sexuality now, Collins says that he was partly inspired by the Boston Marathon bombings, adding that "it takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret."
"I've endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew," he writes. "And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back."
You can read Collins' full Sports Illustrated editorial here.
NBA commissioner David Stern applauded Collins in a statement cited by ESPN, noting, "Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue." Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld felt similarly, calling Collins "a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career" in a statement.
GLAAD's Aaron McQuade echoed those sentiments, calling Collins a "new hero" for young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) athletes in an email statement. "'Courage' and 'inspiration' are words that get thrown around a lot in sports, but Jason Collins has given both ideas a brand new context," McQuade said. "We hope that his future team will welcome him, and that fans of the NBA and sports in general will applaud him."
The issue of gay players in professional sports has been a matter of heated debate in recent months, after San Francisco 49ers player Chris Culliver told Artie Lange that he would not welcome gay players in the NFL or on his team. "I don't do the gay guys, man," Culliver is quoted as saying. "I don't do that. No, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do."
Furthermore, rampant media speculation over Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's sexuality has prompted other professional athletes, including former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and former Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, to chime in.
In a March interview, Fujita said he "would argue that the overwhelming majority [of NFL players] would be fine with having a teammate who was gay," and that "it would not be an issue" to have an openly gay player in the locker room.
Others, such as former Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Mark Knudson, were considerably less enthusiastic. In a February Op-Ed for Mile High Sports, Knudson suggested that players "who are able to keep their sexual orientation private" should be applauded because it's "best for the team."
Meanwhile, Nike poached newly out women's college basketball star Brittney Griner for an endorsement deal, but the athletic wear giant may have even bigger plans in the works for the first openly gay male athlete.
"[T]he first openly gay team-sport athlete -- provided he’s a recognizable name -- would earn millions in endorsements and speaking engagements from companies seeking to capture more of a U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adult population whose annual buying power he pegs at almost $800 billion," Bloomberg wrote after an interview with communications strategist Bob Witeck.