Until Monday, when Collins' eloquent piece in Sports Illustrated announcing that he is gay was published, that's all we ever thought of the journeyman center.
Yesterday, he was just a seldom-used backup looking to find a new team in free agency. Today, Collins has become the face of a long-awaited movement in professional sports.
Collins is not the first athlete to announce he is gay, but he is the first in a major American professional team sport to do so while an active player. It likely won't be long before he's joined by more.
The final paragraph of Collins' essay begins with the line "some people insist they've never met a gay person." In this day and age, it's amazing to think that statement is still true. Some people think they've never met a gay person? How is that possible?
Well, it's possible because so many gay people in this country—not just gay athletes—have felt the need to hide their true feelings, reject their own beliefs and sense of self in an effort to fit in.
Collins explained that for years, he felt the need to mask his true lifestyle, even to the point of getting engaged to a woman, until his private life became less and less of an issue as his career progressed.
Still, Collins didn't come out to his friends and family until 2011, well into his 30s, afraid of admitting his sexual orientation to those closest to him.
If it was that hard for Collins to come out to those who love him the most, it's no wonder it was so difficult to come out in public. It's also no mystery why so many gay athletes feel the need to pretend to be someone they aren't.
Said Collins in the SI piece:
No one wants to live in fear. I've always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don't sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. 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. 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.
That paragraph is perfect.
For anyone who doesn't understand what it must feel like for a gay person to live their life in the closet, read and re-read that paragraph until you get it.
For generations, society has asked gay people to believe how they feel inside is wrong and, in many ways, unlawful. While we have grown as a society, the battle for basic civil rights still happens every day. In some ways, the LGBT community is in the midst of its own extended civil rights movement.
Collins has secured his place at the front of the march.
Being a minority isn't easy in this country, but most minorities don't have the choice to hide who they really are.
We can't hide the color of our skin or the texture of our hair or the shape of our nose. We can't choose our skin color or our nose or our hair or any other characteristic that defines who we are physically.
We can't choose our thoughts and our feelings, either, but they are so much easier to hide, making something like homosexuality very confusing for society and very difficult for those within that community to admit and fully understand.
If you knew you felt a way that would bring ridicule and shame upon you within your community, but you had the ability to hide it from everyone, wouldn't you do that?
That's what gay athletes have been doing for years, and until more brave people like Collins and former U.S. National team soccer player Robbie Rogers come out and proudly admit who they are, there may still be the stigma that being a gay man in American sports is something to hide.
It is not.
Fans have already embraced the host of former athletes who have announced they were gay, and they will do the same with current athletes like Collins, rallying around his words and his cause to provide a strong backbone of support for him—and for the next wave of players to make the announcement.
Make no mistake, the next players are coming soon. I'm almost surprised a few players haven't made their announcements in the time it took me to write this and you to read it. They are coming, and the sports world—our society—will be better for it.
Soon, thanks to Collins and others like him, it won't even be news that a player is gay. The next Jason Collins can just be what Collins was yesterday—a mediocre NBA player.
Whoever that player is, he will have Collins to thank.
Today, we all do.
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