In a self-authored Sports Illustrated article released online Monday, NBA player Jason Collins became the first openly gay active player in the history of major American team sports.
Collins, a 7-foot-tall, hard-nosed pro basketball journeyman known for his aggressive defense and tough fouls, breaks every preconceived, narrow-minded notion of what it is to be a gay man -- and that's what makes his announcement so important.
Americans have grown increasingly comfortable with gay men. That is, so long as they're where we expect them to be. Gay men don't garner a second glance in the arts or in fashion. Gay actors, singers, authors and newscasters are a dime a dozen, causing alarm for only the most homophobic of Americans.
However, gay men are nearly nonexistent in what, as Americans, we consider the "manly" arenas of professional sports -- impossibly so, given that about one out of every 25 males in the U.S. self-identifies as homosexual. There are no openly gay NASCAR drivers, defensive tackles or hockey goalies. Sure, a few NBA and Major League Baseball veterans have come out of the closet years after their playing days ended, but that did nothing to force Americans to consider what it would be like to watch, and root for, a player they knew was gay.
That all changed yesterday.
Writing in Sports Illustrated, Collins admitted the great lengths he went to in order to hide his sexuality. "It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret," he wrote. "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."
The fact that Collins waited until age 34 to make his announcement, when his best playing days are behind him and he has earned more than $30 million as a pro basketball player, indicates that he thought coming out might end his career.
But it turns out, Collins' fears were unfounded.
As word spread of Collins' Sports Illustrated article and his nerve-racking decision to come out of the closet, something encouraging happened. Rather than being shunned, or being showered with homophobic epithets on social media, Americans embraced Collins.
As of Monday afternoon, Jason Collins was the most-searched term on the Internet. His article on Sports Illustrated's website, SI.com, was well on its way to exceeding 100,000 Facebook "likes."
Bill Clinton and the White House both issued statements of respect for Collins' decision to go public.
Dozens of current and former NBA players Tweeted powerful messages of encouragement. Kobe Bryant said that he was proud of Collins, Dwayne Wade wrote that he respected Collins decision to "[take] a stand and live in his truth" and Kevin Love called him a "class act." The NBA and many of the league's teams joined together to release statements in support and solidarity.
Rather than becoming a pariah, Collins became beloved. He is now a role model.
So where does Collins' story leave us? Certainly his brave decision to come out is not the end of gay Americans' battle for equality and civil rights. But Collins decision to go public about his sexuality can be a turning point, especially for young gay male athletes.
Somewhere in America a teenage boy is shooting basketball in a rec center or a driveway or a church gymnasium who, on Monday morning, thought that his sexuality might prevent him from living his dreams. A day later, thanks to Collins' bravery, he now believes he can live his life openly, limited not by his sexuality, but only by how far his talent can take him.