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Commentary: an athlete’s ability, not sexuality, needs to be focus

Washington Wizards center Jason Collins (98) warms up before their game against the New Orleans Hornets at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., March 15, 2013. Collins has become the first male professional athlete in the major four American sports leagues to come out as gay.

Courtesy of MCT

The LGBT rights movement seems to slowly but surely be making progress in the United States. Same-sex marriage is only legalized in nine states and the District of Columbia, but three of those states voted to legalize marriage in the 2012 elections. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is currently debating the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, which both define marriage as only between a man and a woman.

While many politicians, entertainment and TV personalities have revealed their homosexuality in recent years and have received widespread support from their peers, the world of sports, and in particular men’s sports, has not progressed as quickly.

The civil rights movement toward LGBT acceptance within sports took a big step forward on Monday, when NBA center Jason Collins became the first active player to come out as gay in one of the four major U.S. professional sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL).

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay,” Collins wrote to open a cover story for Sports Illustrated that was published online Monday.

In one sentence, Collins broke a longstanding barrier within men’s professional team sports. While there have been athletes in all four major sports leagues to reveal their homosexuality after retiring from professional sports, none has come out with the intent of continuing their career in professional sports.

“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport,” Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated. “But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.”

Collins is a 12-year NBA veteran who has played for six different teams, has scored more than 2,500 points and grabbed more than 2,500 rebounds in his career, and is known for being a physical player — Collins led the NBA with 322 personal fouls for the 2004-05 season.

Being gay didn’t stop him from doing any of that.

There is one caveat in Collins’ status as an active professional athlete: he may never play another NBA game. As a member of two different teams (Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards) this season, he scored just 41 points in 38 games, and he will be a free agent this summer.

It shouldn’t matter.

The fact that Collins is revealing his homosexuality, having played in the NBA and still intending to play in the NBA, is a step forward in itself. Even more importantly, Collins has received support publicly from numerous current and former NBA star players, including Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd, Shaquille O’Neal and Magic Johnson.

“Jason’s sexuality doesn’t change the fact that he is a great friend and was a great teammate,” Kidd, who is currently a New York Knicks point guard and previously played for the New Jersey Nets with Collins, tweeted Monday.

Collins’ supporters have ranged far and wide, also including Michelle Obama, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and former Columbus Crew soccer player Robbie Rogers, who came out as gay in February but also retired simultaneously.

Kluwe is the co-author of an amicus brief titled “Athletes’ Brief,” along with NFL linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo (who also tweeted his support for Collins on Monday), that was sent to the Supreme Court in March in petition opposing Proposition 8, and was signed by a number of professional athletes and sports-related figures who support marriage equality.

The NFL has not had any active player come out as gay yet, but during an event at OSU on April 8, Kluwe said he thinks the issue will “blow over in a month or two” once one NFL player does come out as gay.

“The first guy or guys that come out, yeah, there’s going to be some attention, but after that, no one will care,” Kluwe said. “Then it becomes, how well can you play football, which is the way it should be.”

Now that a male professional athlete in a major sport has come out as gay, we get to find out whether the issue will “blow over” quickly.

Earlier this month, Brittney Griner acknowledged her own homosexuality in an interview with Sports Illustrated after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft.

“I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality. So, it wasn’t hard at all. If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way,” Griner told Sports Illustrated.

Griner’s acknowledgement did not receive nearly the attention that Collins’ story did on Monday. Women’s sports, however, has had a precedent of star athletes being openly gay, including three-time WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes and tennis legends Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova.

Regardless of whether Collins plays another NBA game or not, his revelation has set that precedent for male professional athletes.

Between Collins, Griner and Rogers all acknowledging their homosexuality within the past three months, the hope is that more professional athletes who are closeted homosexuals will feel comfortable being open about their own sexuality.

Furthermore, the support they have received from not only the sports community, but the community at large, should provide an inspiration for LGBT athletes at all levels to embrace who they are, and know that there are many members of the community who will support them for being who they are.

If the current trend continues, we may not be too far removed from a nation where being a homosexual athlete is no longer a story, and we will be able to focus simply upon how well an athlete, regardless of their sexuality, can play their sport. That is, like Kluwe said, the way it should be.

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