Jason Collins came out, got widely congratulated for his courage, and the games went on.
It was really that simple.
For the first time, a player still active in one of the four U.S. major pro sports leagues told the world he was gay, with Collins choosing to do so by writing a first-person account for Sports Illustrated. And the overwhelming sense from his athlete peers, the vast majority of whom probably had no idea who he was before his story was published Monday morning, was simply, “About time.”
From Los Angeles to New York and virtually every spot in between — not to mention a never-ending stream of comments on Twitter — the sports world reacted with words of support, encouragement and even thanks for Collins, a journeyman center who has never been anything remotely close to an NBA star, but is now surely entering a world of notoriety unlike anything he’s ever experienced.
“I applaud his decision to be true to his identity and, from his own words, start this conversation in major professional sports,” said Bernard Muir, the athletic director at Stanford, where Collins played his college ball. “On behalf of a diverse athletic community I hope that we progress to the point in society where truthful moments like these are no longer newsworthy.”
Only something like this could have made someone like Collins, who averaged a mere 1.1 points this season for the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, arguably the biggest story in sports.
First Lady Michelle Obama personally tweeted a supportive message. Former President Bill Clinton, whose daughter Chelsea has been friends with Collins since their Stanford days, spoke of the player’s courage. Tennis great Martina Navratilova — who came out in 1981 — called him a pioneer, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers compared him to Jackie Robinson.
“I can only speak for myself, and I would be perfectly comfortable with it,” said Dustin Brown, the captain of the reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. “I have friends that are gay, I have relatives that are gay. It’s part of society. It’s just like anything else, if they’re going to help me win, I want them on my team, right?”
That was a notion shared around locker rooms and clubhouses all day Monday. When players, coaches and managers were asked what they thought the reaction to a gay player would be on their teams, the almost universal response was something to the effect of this: If he’s going to improve our team, then it’s all good.
“Whether he is straight, gay, black, white, from Earth, or from Mars is immaterial,” said Miami Heat forward Shane Battier.
Added New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi: “He’s a player, he’s a man. My job is to be his friend and love him. If I was his manager it’s to get the most out of him, and if I was a player, I always felt as a player it was to be the best teammate I could be. And that’s the bottom line.”
Collins finished this season with the Wizards, traveling, practicing, playing, dressing and hanging out with the same men, day after day after day.
They had no idea he was gay.
“No, I didn’t know about it! I don’t think anyone did!” Wizards guard Bradley Beal wrote in a text message. “I am proud of his decision to come out and express the way he feels and I’m supportive of that!! I never judge anyone, that’s his decision and his life to live!”
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis talked with Collins on Monday, saying that he told him, “we are proud of you and I support you in every way possible.”
Collins’ message was not unanimously well received. Countless tweets about Collins included a gay slur. In New York, well-known sports radio host Mike Francesa called the story “a dramatic attempt to sell a magazine.” Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace had to backtrack from, delete and eventually apologize for two tweets he posted about the Collins story, in which he said he did not understand homosexuality.
Still, the praise Collins got far outweighed anything else.
“I don’t think it’s any of my business to be anything but respectful of the way people want to live their life,” Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona said.
The news apparently took almost everyone who is outside of Collins’ innermost circle by surprise, including Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard — a gay college student from Wyoming who was killed in 1998. Collins switched his jersey number to 98 this season, a silent tribute that he never even told the Shepard family about.
“We’re especially happy that now he feels free to be himself,” Judy Shepard said in a telephone interview. “We’re happy for him, relieved that his news is being received so well across the board.”
And it was.
Former NFL wide receiver Chad Johnson, when asked on Twitter if he ever played with a gay teammate, responded by saying, “who cares?” Actor Neil Patrick Harris, who came out nearly a decade ago, thanked Collins for “standing tall” — a nod to his height. NBA stars Kobe Bryant (who was fined $100,000 in 2011 after using a common homophobic slur during a game) and Dwyane Wade sent messages of support. And Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts, who is gay, lauded Collins as “a man of great courage.”
“We should all be tolerant. Not only tolerant but accepting,” Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun said. “I think it’s a great thing. I think everyone should be encouraged to be comfortable and confident in who they are. I think, hopefully, that this will be the first step in the right direction for anybody that’s going through some of the same things he’s been going through.”