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Jason Collins Is NBA’s First Active Player to Say ‘I’m Gay’

April 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Jason Collins, a 34-year-old veteran NBA player, has become the first male pro-athlete currently playing one of the four big sports to come out and say he's gay. Jeffrey Brown talks with LZ Granderson, sports writer and columnist for ESPN and CNN, about evolving attitudes on and off the court about sexuality and stereotypes.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For the first time, an active male player in the four major professional sports today announced publicly he’s gay. Pro basketball’s Jason Collins put it this way: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

Jeffrey Brown looks at his decision and the reaction.

JEFFREY BROWN: The news came first in Collins’ own account on Sports Illustrated’s website.

He wrote: “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

The seven-foot Collins is now 34 and a free agent. He played for the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics this season, his 12th in the league. In his “Sports Illustrated” account, he pointed to this month’s attack in Boston, saying: “It reinforced the notion that I shouldn’t wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect. Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?”

Reaction appeared largely positive. Doc Rivers, coach of Boston Celtics, said in a statement: “I’m extremely happy and proud of Jason Collins. He is a pro’s pro.”

Los Angeles superstar Kobe Bryant tweeted his encouragement: “Proud of Jason Collins. Don’t suffocate you are who you are because of the ignorance of others.”

Bryant’s support came two years after he was fined $100,000 dollars for using a homophobic slur during a game. And the issue has arisen in other sports. Before this year’s Super Bowl, San Francisco 49ers player Chris Culliver said gay athletes wouldn’t be welcome in the locker room.

Indeed, until Collins, the only male athletes to come out were already retired, while women’s sports have been more accepting. Brittney Griner, the top pick in this year’s WNBA draft, made hardly a ripple this month when she announced she is a lesbian.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more now on the Jason Collins story, I’m joined by LZ Granderson, a sportswriter and columnist ESPN and a CNN contributor.

Well, specifically for our non-sports fans, why has this taken so long in pro sports and why is it a big deal now?

LZ GRANDERSON, ESPN: Well, one of the reasons why it’s taken so long in professional sports is because there’s the sense in the locker room that it isn’t an environment in which an openly gay male player would feel safe, that if he came out, that his job would be in jeopardy, that his health could be at risk, especially if he is playing a collision sport like football or hockey, or that a team wouldn’t sign him, or would cut him or waive him if he is playing football.

So, the threat of your livelihood and the threat of the health for many, many years was the reason why athletes were so hesitant to come out. And as far as it being a big deal now, I would like to — it’s a big deal in the sense that it’s the first player, but when you look at the arc of the LGBT movement and where we are right now, I’m not sure if it’s as big of a deal as perhaps what is going on at the Supreme Court right now with the Defense of Marriage Act.

In other words, the movement has progressed to a certain point at which the laws that are being addressed are affecting a much larger group of people than perhaps the symbolism of one player coming out in the NBA.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are saying the movement in the larger culture is beyond where the — where sports is perhaps?

What kind of reaction is this getting so far in the world of sports and what kind of reaction might you expect later on in the locker room?

LZ GRANDERSON: Well, you know, Jason is a free agent.

So, right now, he doesn’t have a particular locker room to report to. And that is the piece of puzzle that we’re all waiting for, if you will. Everyone that has been tweeting thus far, for the most part, have been very supportive.

It’s my understanding that President Obama recently called Jason Collins and congratulated him. We know Michelle Obama tweeted that “We’ve got your back.” Numerous players, including Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, have all tweeted in support of Jason.

But at the end of the day, where we’re in this conversation will be determined about whether or not Jason is re-signed. If he goes into a locker room, if he is signed as an openly gay player, then I think we know where we are. If he is not signed, we have much more questions that need to be asked, as well as answered.

Was he not signed because he is openly gay? Was he not signed because he is not a particularly great player, because he is 34? A lot of other questions will be out there that have to be answered.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is your sense of where things stand in other sports beyond basketball, football, for example, a famously macho environment, right?

LZ GRANDERSON: Well, you know, I’m an openly gay man. I like to think of myself as fairly macho. So, I don’t like think one’s sexual orientation …

JEFFREY BROWN: I didn’t — I certainly didn’t — I certainly didn’t mean that. I just meant the reputation and …

LZ GRANDERSON: No, no.

No, and people usually prefix the conversation about professional sports, about it being this really macho environment, when the truth of the matter is that whatever we deem as stereotypically macho, the male athletes that have come out thus far in professional sports all fit that bill. John Amaechi played a big power forward position. I would think that would be pretty macho. He’s a big, strong guy.

Before him, Dave Kopay was a killer on the field, pretty macho guy. So, I think part of this conversation is perhaps reframing the way we think about it in its entirety, looking at it perhaps through a different paradigm. So, that’s the reason why I gave a little pushback there.

JEFFREY BROWN: No, no, no, I take the point, well-taken.

So, what is the situation in other sports? Is there — similar to what you see in basketball?

LZ GRANDERSON: Well, you know, I do know that all these leagues have worked with or are still working with some national organization addressing homophobia in sports.

The NBA has been working with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network for years prior to Jason Collins coming out, prior to Kobe Bryant being fined last year for uttering a gay slur inadvertently on television. The NFL has been working with an organization to try to address homophobia in sports. The NHL a couple of weeks ago announced working with an organization to make things better for an openly gay athlete in its sport.

So, I would think that, at least from an executive level, a lot has been done to address this issue and to make things more comfortable or more tolerant for an openly gay player to exist in the locker room. But with that being said, no locker room has what has happened in the NBA. And if Jason is resigned, the other leagues have a lot of catching up to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, LZ GRANDERSON, ESPN columnist, thanks so much.

LZ GRANDERSON: Hey, thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, online, we have reaction from the athletes from the NBA and other major sports leagues. That’s on our Rundown.