Jason Collins is being called a hero. A barrier-breaker. Extraordinarily brave. The first professional male athlete playing a major team sport to come out as gay, Collins even received a phone call from President Obama praising his courage.
But Collins is also a leader. He may not coach a team, decide plays or manage a ball club. He may not have been elected or promoted or appointed to a position of particular prominence in the league. But in the most basic sense of the word, he is displaying all of the leadership qualities lacking in so many of our traditional leaders today. He is carving a path that others can follow, being authentic, and going where no one before him has gone.
Well, sort of. Just two weeks ago, Brittney Griner, the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, said publicly that she is a lesbian. The world shrugged, and the president did not call. Her revelation actually got even less attention than mere rumors that a group of NFL players were about to publicly come out as gay. There are reasons this happens, from outright sexism to gender stereotypes. But in today's world, fair or unfair, a male athlete coming out is simply a much bigger deal.
Collins seems to realize this is a watershed moment, and yet at the same time doesn't seem to be positioning himself as a figurehead for gay athletes. In the essay he penned in Sports Illustrated with Frank Lidz, Collins writes that "I intend to guard my privacy" and that "all you need to know is that I'm single. I see no need to delve into specifics." He also says "I'm not the loudest person in the room" and "I've never been an in-your-face kind of guy." And he's careful to write that "I don't let my race define me any more than I want my sexual orientation to. I don't want to be labeled, and I can't let someone else's label define me."
On the court, he doesn't fashion himself as a traditional leader, either. A self-described "pro's pro," Collins says his "forte" is fouling—so much so that he led the NBA in personal fouls in the 2004-05 season. "I sacrifice myself for other players," he writes. "I look out for my teammates as I would my kid brother." It's the position he plays, to be sure, but for Collins, it's also the kind of player he is. He notes that he didn't say publicly that he is gay before now out of loyalty to his team, and that he doesn't care about stats or box scores. "Winning is what counts. I want to be evaluated as a team player."
In the eyes of some, Collins may be a hero and a pioneer with the power to revolutionize attitudes. But he's also something much simpler: an athlete who happily puts team before self, a player willing to risk heckles from fans to pave the way for others, and an NBA journeyman who's finally, bravely, true to himself. The kind of leader, in a word, we'd all like to see.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.