NBA journeyman Jason Collins came out of the closet this week, outing himself as the first active gay player in major team sports in the United States.
The list of places in this world more macho and masculine than a professional sports locker room, where this news won't go over well, is pretty short. Consider these comments from the San Francisco 49ers' Chris Culliver the week before the Super Bowl: "We ain't got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up out here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff. Can't be … in the locker room."
At any time, those are cringe-inducing comments, but even more so in the 21st century. Thoughts are that we moved passed those types of feelings. Obviously, in some places, we have not.
Sports Illustrated polled fans this week and nearly 25,000 answered questions about gay athletes in sports. More than half found Collins' announcement a positive step for sports and another 27 percent said sexual orientation should not be major news. The poll also showed that nearly four out of five fans' opinion would not change if an athlete announced being gay.
Still, Collins' statement took a considerable amount of courage for the simple fact that the team environment adds a different element to the story. While athletes like Martina Navratalova, Billy Jean King and Greg Louganis have come out long before Collins, they were all individual athletes, who did not have to worry about the reaction of teammates to their announcement.
Unfortunately, for Collins, there are still people in professional locker rooms who have the same feelings as Chris Culliver. Collins admitted he did not want to be the first openly gay athlete in major American team sports, "but since I have, I'm happy to start the conversation."
It is a conversation that has been ongoing in the country for decades, but now is front and center. Collins' announcement pushes it to places where the wall has been more difficult to climb than most places: Sports arenas and locker rooms.
Charles Barkley famously boasted that he wasn't a role model, a statement which was incorrect because like it or not, athletes are role models to many people of all ages, colors and creeds. Jason Collins undoubtedly is a role model, not just because he was the first, but because he wants to continue the conversation.