Global acclaim for basketball’s first gay star

Reaching up: Jason Collins (front left) wants to be ‘genuine and authentic and truthful’ © Getty Images

When Jason Collins became the first top male athlete in America to come out as gay, he was braced to suffer abuse. Instead, everyone from players to presidents has praised his bravery.

Jason Collins has been a professional basketball player for 12 years. He has played for six top American teams and appeared in two major finals.

But while he is familiar to fans and widely admired as a tough, hard-working team player, Collins has never been a household name – until last week, when an article in Sports Illustrated propelled him instantly to global fame. ‘I'm a 34-year-old NBA center,’ Collins began. ‘I’m black. And I'm gay.’

With those three sentences, Jason Collins became the first NBA player to come out as gay while still involved in his sport. Even more strikingly, he is the first openly gay male athlete in any major US league.

The rarity of gay athletes is not only an American phenomenon. Of the roughly 50,000 men who play football professionally around the world, a grand total of one has publicly said that he is gay: Anton Hysén of the third division Swedish team Utsiktens BK.

Is this because gay people are uninterested in sport? Certainly not, as the Chairman of the Professional Footballers Association demonstrated last weekend when he revealed that eight current Premier League players had talked to him privately about their homosexuality – but none of them was willingly to make it public.

Why all this secrecy? Because in the macho, combative and often sensationalist world of sport, athletes are afraid of how fans and the media will react.

Their fears are not without basis: Justin Fashanu, England’s only gay footballer to date, was so persecuted after making his sexuality known that he was eventually driven to suicide.

The shame of Fashanu’s fate still haunts the football world. But much has changed in the 30 years that have passed since then. Gareth Thomas, one of the greatest rugby players of his generation, came out in 2009, and last October Orlando Cruz became the first openly gay male boxer.

And since Jason Collins’ declaration last week, pundits, fellow players and even two US presidents have lined up to congratulate him.

Come out, come out

To many gay rights activists, Collins’ courage and honesty makes him a hero. If homophobia in sport is to be defeated, they say, other gay athletes must stop hiding their sexuality as if it is a shameful secret. It is their moral responsibility to speak out: by showing pride in their identity they could smash sport’s ‘last taboo’ and become an inspiration to young gay people everywhere.

But some people have more sympathy with athletes who remain in the closet: a sports star’s sexual orientation, they say, is nobody’s business but their own. Everybody should have the right to keep their love life private – even a Premier League footballer.

You Decide

  1. Do gay sports stars have a moral responsibility to make their sexuality public?
  2. Is it true that homophobia is ‘the last taboo in sport’?

Activities

  1. Make a poster aimed at discouraging sports fans from expressing homophobic attitudes.
  2. Pick a celebrity who has struggled or spoken out against prejudice and write a brief description of why you admire them.

Some People Say...

“Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it’s a good place to start.’ Jason Collins”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I be bothered about who a basketball player is attracted to?
No reason whatever. Historically, though, many people have been very bothered by differences in sexual orientation. One of the most important steps towards a more tolerant society happened when gay people became more proud and open about their identity – and in many sports, that has yet to occur.
A footballer who came out would get some stick from the fans, sure. But what’s wrong with a bit of harmless banter?
Just because something is meant as a joke, that doesn’t make it harmless. For a start, the target of your ‘banter’ might be genuinely hurt by something you say. And as long as serious discrimination exists (which it does), homophobic chants encourage people to treat negative prejudices as normal and reasonable opinions.

Word Watch

NBA
The National Basketball Association is one of the ‘Big Four’ sports leagues in the USA. The others are American football, baseball and ice hockey.
Male
Coming out can be equally challenging for women, of course. But since the 1980s, when the great tennis players Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King came out, women’s sport has had far more prominent gay players than men’s.
Justin Fashanu
As well as being the first openly gay player in Britain, he was also the first black player to be transferred for a fee of more than £1 million. Fashanu never fulfilled his potential as a player, and took his life after being hounded by the media and accused of sexual assault.
Fellow players
For example Kobe Bryant, probably the most admired current player in the NBA, congratulated Collins for being ‘extremely brave’.
Two US presidents
‘I’m proud to call Jason Collins a friend,’ said former President Bill Clinton, while basketball fan Barack Obama phoned Collins after reading his piece.