With that, Collins became the first active male athlete in a major U.S. professional sports league to come out of the closet — a designation that is certain to elevate this relatively anonymous player, known primarily for his ability to commit fouls and set picks, into a historic figure in both the sports and gay-rights realms.
“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport,” Collins wrote. “But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
The first wave of public reaction to Collins’s announcement was overwhelmingly positive. President Obama called Collins “to express his support and said he was impressed by his courage,” according to a White House official. Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, former NFL star and current daytime TV talk host Michael Strahan and former president Bill Clinton were among others who issed public salutes to Collins.
Even amid widespread speculation that one or more male athletes would soon break the sexuality barrier — former Ravens safety Brendon Ayanbadejo suggested in recent interviews that one or more NFL players were preparing to come out — Collins’s announcement stunned people around the NBA, including his Wizards teammates. Several of them said they had no inclination Collins was gay.
“My first reaction was I felt for him,” said Wizards center Emeka Okafor, who said Collins, his backup, called to give him the news shortly before the article went live. “I was like, ‘Wow, you’ve had to carry this around for so long.’ I can only imagine the emotional toll that it must take, and also the strength it must take to come out. . . . Maybe more people will [come out] now. Maybe this will be the spark where other people feel comfortable.”
Until recent years, the notion of an openly gay male athlete was thought to be a near-impossibility in major U.S. professional sports, where the testosterone-fueled culture of the locker room often bordered on homophobia. While celebrated female athletes such as tennis player Martina Navratilova and basketball player Sheryl Swoopes were comfortably out of the closet during their careers — and several male athletes revealed their homosexuality after their playing careers — no active male athlete could afford to take a similar step.
As recently as 2002, baseball star Mike Piazza felt compelled to call a news conference to refute rumors he was gay. In 2007, former NBA all-star guard Tim Hardaway said in a radio interview: “I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic.” In 2011, the Lakers’ Bryant was fined $100,000 for using a homophobic slur in a rant against a referee.