But physical heroism and the moral kind don’t always go together — the Confederacy proved that. If you are tempted to ask how much guts it took for Collins to come out, you can answer that question by simply asking yourself another one:
If it was so easy, then why had no one done it before?
True, this wasn’t securing a beachhead, but when the first keystroke of his announcement — “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. I’m also gay.” — hit the Internet, Collins broke a barrier. Before that sentence, the reception a gay NBA player would get from his peers and the public was a chilly, dark pool of unknowns. The decision entailed, among other things, surrendering his privacy, risking the disaffection and disapproval of his family, subjecting himself to flinching awkwardness from friends and teammates, and potentially, harming his livelihood.
Washington Wizards management could pat itself on the back for being “proud” of Collins on Monday, but before that all Collins had to go on for an example were the headlines from the NFL Scouting combine, where some team executives asked draftees if they liked girls. The truth is, there are general managers who will quietly shy from Collins. Just as there are places where he will encounter purse-lipped distaste and judgment of those who hate-the-sin-but-love-the-sinner, and threatened haters who will want to beat the snot out of him for looking at them.
The main thing Collins did by coming out, to borrow a neat phrase from former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, was to make “the impossible seem inevitable in retrospect.” Before Collins, out-ness was the third rail for male pro athletes. It was a boundary, with no-trespassing signs posted. A male athlete couldn’t come out because it would be an Achilles’ heel, a weakness, a vulnerability. It would destabilize the locker room, and everyone would think he was soft as a fern.
Collins has now completely judo-flipped that stigma and stereotype. Gay isn’t weak, it’s strong — just look at him. And look at his record: He’s played on a half-dozen teams and appeared in the playoffs nine times in 11 years, and has a reputation as one of the best locker room guys in the league.