After he came out in April 2013, Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete active in any of the four recognized major North American professional team sports leagues. When the 35-year-old retired from the NBA in November 2014, he was still the only out athlete ever to have played a game in the NBA, NFL, MLB or NHL.
In a pair of first-person essays published Wednesday by Sports Illustrated and The Players' Tribune announcing his retirement, Collins reflected on his own experiences as an LGBT pioneer and also addressed the concerns of other gay athletes who have yet to come out.
For Sports Illustrated, Collins wrote:
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.
In the piece published at The Players' Tribune, Collins recounted a moment from his playing career when he experienced the fear of being outed by one his teammates:
“Hey Jason … Jason! How come we never see you with any women? Are you gay?”
The team bus was uncomfortably silent. Everybody from the front of the bus to the back heard the question. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. In sports, guys bust each other’s balls all the time. I had been asked that question a few different times by teammates in my previous years in the league, but this time was different. Whenever guys would go out on the town on road trips, I always had a built-in excuse -- a trip to a local casino or a visit to a family friend or a college buddy in that city who I had to go see. Sometimes those friends were real. Sometimes I made them up and would sit alone in the hotel watching TV while the guys went out to enjoy the nightlife.
Collins, feeling angry yet embarrassed, asked himself: "What would a straight guy do in this situation?" From the back of the bus, another teammate claimed he had recently seen Collins out with a woman, diffusing the tense moment. For Collins, keeping up the act of being straight was "exhausting."
After coming out, Collins received a warm welcome from fans in his debut with the Nets against the Lakers in Los Angeles as well as in his first home game in Brooklyn. Before his historic first game with the Nets, Collins was asked during a press conference to deliver a message to other gay athletes who had yet to come out.
"My message to other athletes is just be yourself. Be your true authentic self and never be afraid or ashamed or have any fear to be your true, authentic self," Collins told reporters.