When Jason Collins walked down the streets of Boston in the city’s gay pride parade on June 9, for the first time in his life he could embrace who he was and confidently show to the world that he is a gay professional athlete.
Professional sports exist within a testosterone-driven environment, in which athletes are praised for their superior physicality over their opponents. When one thinks of the stereotypes associated with homosexuality, these usually do not mesh. But things changed on May 1, when the NBA centre announced to the world that he is gay. Collins, who is now a free agent, but last played for the Washington Wizards in 2013, became the first active athlete to come out as gay in one of the four major professional sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL), and with this announcement can maybe one of the biggest taboos in sports can be put to rest.
Sports and athletics are certainly the least conducive environment to the acceptance of homosexuality. There is such a great fear of one’s manhood being threatened when talking about gay athletes; the fear of being looked at in the shower and being around them naked in the locker room, for example. Your teammates become your brothers on the battlefield, who you live and die with. Being gay unfortunately alienates you from the group and creates massive tension in the locker room.
The thought that all this time, someone you showered with, celebrated victories with, gone out to bars with, could’ve been looking at you the whole time wanting to have sex with you. So, for the sake of the team, gay athletes have been willing to live a lie rather than live freely simple as who they are.
Collins was no different. As with the groups of gay athletes that have not come out to the public and their teammates, Collins was living a lie. “When I was younger I dated women. I even got engaged. I thought I had to live a certain way,” he told Sports Illustrated.
Collins has changed public opinion, and gained a huge outcry of support, even from President Obama. With each magazine and television interview his story has reached sports fans and non-sports fans alike across the globe. These are all positive steps, but will Collins’ coming out change attitudes within locker rooms across the board in basketball, hockey, baseball, football and soccer? When will this become a non-issue? After all, there has not been a shortage of homophobic events occurring within the sports world within the last year.
Granted that was before Collins’ announcement, but athletes, like regular people, who are ignorant and intolerant won’t simply go away. However, the question is whether or not Collins is a big enough name to create the kind of sway an athlete would need to create widespread change and show how little it matters. Imagine what would happen if LeBron James or Peyton Manning or Sidney Crosby came out as being gay?
We are one star away from showing athletes everywhere that not only are gay athletes of course no different than straight ones, have no less desire to win or skill to do so, and nine times out of ten have more skill than opponents. But sports have to start somewhere, and every cause for change needs its trailblazer.
The mental toll it takes on someone to suppress who they are and pretend to be something they are not is immense, compounded greatly when added to the physical and mental toll it takes to be a professional athlete and it will be interesting to see free of that burden, how Collins performs as a basketball player in the 2013-14 season and who will be next to overcome that final hurdle and stop living a lie.