Jason Collins was a record-breaking high school hoops star, and an All-American while playing at Stanford University. Selected in the first round with the 18th overall pick in 2001, he has played as a center in the NBA for twelve seasons. He has played in the Elite Eight, the Final Four, and made the NBA playoffs nine times.
Entering his 13th season in the NBA with the Washington Wizards, 34-year-old Collins has become a record-breaker and role model in a whole new way: today, in Sports Illustrated, he came out publicly as gay.
He is the first athlete to come out as gay while actively playing in any of the four major sports leagues: baseball, hockey, football, or basketball.
Let’s take a moment to think about that. There are 450 players in the National Basketball Association. There are 1,200 in Major League Baseball, 1,500 in the National Hockey League, and just under 1,700 in the National Football League. That’s nearly 5,000 professional athletes. It is statistically impossible for Jason Collins to be the only gay player; he’s just the only openly gay player.
The Wizards’ organization offered their unequivocal support: “We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly. He has been a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career. Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation.”
Over the past month, in the context of Autism Acceptance Month, our family has been talking a lot about what acceptance means. I have a 12-year-old daughter with Asperger Syndrome. Like Jason Collins, she is a twin. Like Jason Collins, she knows that she is different from her twin and her peers, and up until now has been afraid to publicly affirm who she is.
It is hard to be different. My daughter once said to me, “people tell you to just be yourself, but they really want you to be like everyone else.” It is hard to be different in middle school, and it is hard to be different in professional sports.
In his article in Sports Illustrated, Collins wrote:
“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.”
This month, my 12-year-old daughter helped me with an autism awareness/autism acceptance project for her younger sister’s Brownie troop. We went through the slides from my post, 10 Things I Wish Your Kids Knew About Autism. We talked about all the ways autistic and neurotypical people are alike, and how you can’t tell that someone is autistic by looking at them. At the end of our discussion, my daughter told the other girls that she is autistic. Their minds were blown: they see her as a cool, older sister. They see her as a Cadette Girl Scout. They see her as a smart, fun, outgoing sixth grader.
Although her close friends already knew about her autism, that marked the first time she had said “I’m autistic” in anything close to a public setting. I have never been more proud of her than I was at that moment.
My daughter is blazing a path for her younger brother, who also has Asperger Syndrome. He sees her being open about it, and he sees her true friends accepting her exactly the way she is. More importantly, he sees his sister learning to accept herself exactly the way she is.
Collins is blazing a path–not just for LGBT athletes, but for all of us. To be accepting of others, we all need to accept ourselves. We all need to live openly and proudly.
“By coming out as gay, veteran Jason Collins has shown a unique bravery to those inside and outside of the NBA world” reads the NBA website’s front page today. Collins has received support on Twitter from everyone from Howard Stern to former President Bill Clinton. Current NBA players Kobe Bryant and Baron Davis, and retired star Earvin “Magic” Johnson tweeted how proud they are of Collins. Most importantly, he already had the support of his family, including his twin brother Jarron (also an NBA center, who most recently played for Portland Trailblazers).
Of course, there were criticisms as well. Almost immediately after Jason Collins came out as gay, ESPN sportscaster Chris Broussard came out as a bigot, characterizing homosexuality as “an open rebellion to God.”
My daughter knows that she runs the risk of being ostracized for being openly autistic. “Sometimes, I wonder if maybe some of the kids who seem mean, maybe they’re really nice but just don’t know how to fit in,” my daughter said to me recently. “And then also, sometimes they’re just jerks.”
Indeed. And when I show my daughter, and in fact all four of my kids, the torrent tweets supporting Jason Collins, I’ll show them some of the bigoted ones as well. Because yes, there are jerks. But we don’t live our lives for them.
Update: Late Monday, ESPN’s Chris Broussard clarified his remarks:
“Today on OTL, as part of a larger, wide-ranging discussion on today’s news, I offered my personal opinion as it relates to Christianity, a point of view that I have expressed publicly before. I realize that some people disagree with my opinion and I accept and respect that. As has been the case in the past, my beliefs have not and will not impact my ability to report on the NBA. I believe Jason Collins displayed bravery with his announcement today and I have no objection to him or anyone else playing in the NBA.”
ESPN also released the following statement late Monday:
“We regret that a respectful discussion of personal viewpoints became a distraction from today’s news. ESPN is fully committed to diversity and welcomes Jason Collins’ announcement.”
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(Photo Credit: Jason Collins/ Twitter)
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