Former Stanford star Jason Collins has come out of the closet and into the international spotlight. In a revealing interview with Sports Illustrated magazine, Collins has become the first active openly gay player in a major American team sport. NBC Bay Areas Cheryl Hurd reports.
NBA basketball player Jason Collins is the first, active openly gay male athlete playing in a major American team sport, and the Stanford graduate told his own tale in the upcoming May issue of Sports Illustrated.
Collins opens his piece: "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay."
He continued: "I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. 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."
According to the article, which he co-wrote with Franz Linz,, the first relative he came out to was his aunt Teri Jackson, a superior court judge in San Francisco.
Her reaction surprised Collins.
"I've known you were gay for years," she said in the article. From that moment on, Collins said, he was comfortable in his own skin.
In an interview with NBC Bay Area Monday, Jackson said that she's proud of her nephew, who came out to her a few years ago. She said the news wasn't "earthshaking," because it's not his sexual orientation that "defines him as a man."
Even though pro-sports has had its share of homophobia, the flurry of support for Collins has been overwhelming, from President Obama and former President Bill Clinton, both of whom called him.
He even got kudos from the NBA.
"Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career," NBA Commissioner David Stern said on Monday. "And we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue."
Collins played with the Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Jersey Nets, Atlanta Hawks, and Memphis Grizzlies. He played for the Washington Wizards this past season. He's now a free agent looking to sign on with a team for next season.
Clinton issued a statement after the Collins article was published. He said he has known Collins since he was his daughter Chelsea's classmate and friend at Stanford.
"Jason's announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT community," the former president said in the statement. "It is also the straightforward statement of a good man who wants no more than what so many of us seek: to be able to be who we are; to do our work; to build families and to contribute to our communities. For so many members of the LGBT community, these simple goals remain elusive. I hope that everyone, particularly Jason's colleagues in the NBA, the media and his many fans extend to him their support and the respect he has earned."
U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts who used to room with Collins at Stanford said, "For as long as I've known Jason Collins he has been defined by three things: His passion for the sport he loves, his unwavering integrity, and the biggest heart you will ever find.''
Kennedy added: "Without question or hesitation, he gives everything he's got to those of us lucky enough to be in his life. I'm proud to stand with him today and proud to call him a friend."
The pro-gay rights group, Human Rights Campaign, also chimed in, saying Collins has done wonderful things in "becoming a role model for youth."
"With his brave and honest announcement today, Jason Collins has forever changed the face of sports," HRC President Chad Griffin said in a statement on Monday. "No longer will prejudice and fear force gay athletes to remain silent about a fundamental part of their lives... At a moment when millions are reflecting on the life and legacy of Jackie Robinson, Jason Collins is a hero for our own times."
Collins is certainly not the first gay athlete. But what sets him apart is that others who have come out as gay have either been former players, coaches or women. That includes Kwame Harris, a retired San Francisco 49er and Oakland Raider who came out this spring and Brittney Griner, a lesbian pro women's basketball player. The Oakland Warriors head basketball coach has also come out.
Polls show that Americans, including its politicians, are more comfortable with gay marriage, and in other countries, active gay team athletes have already come out of the closet. That includes English rugby player Gareth Thomas, Australian rugby player Ian Roberts and English footballer Justin Fashanu, who ended up committing suicide.
Until recently, coming out, especially for major league athletes, has been almost nonexistent. But change is afoot.
In April, USA Today's headline was "Leagues Prepare for Day When Gay Athlete Comes Out." The National Hockey League took a step this month by announcing a formal partnership with You Can Play, an advocacy group dedicated to ensuring equality and respect for all athletes regardless of sexual orientation.
Other leagues are also taking steps. The NFL's, NBA's and MLB's collective bargaining agreements ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told USA Today the league's rookie symposiums will include sessions on inclusion and tolerance. He also said NFL senior vice president of player engagement met with organizations representing the LGBT community, including You Can Play, as part of ongoing dialogue.
Former NFL cornerback Wade Davis knows about this issue well. In February, the retired pro-football cornerback came out last summer. He said pro sports has been traditionally perceived as a bulwark of homophobia, but felt that there is an overall widening acceptance of gays that mirror what's going on in the general public.
Cyd Zeigler Jr., co-founder of the website Outsports, said Collins' move was a watershed event, one that could encourage other closeted gay athletes to come out of the closet. That's not only because those athletes have a new leader, Zeigler said, but because America has become much more welcoming of homosexuals.
Anticipation of an active American professional team-sport athlete coming out has been building for years, so Collins' announcement won't be as shocking as, say, when retired NFL running back David Kopay in 1975 became the first former team-sport athlete to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality.
It took many years for someone else to feel comfortable enough to become the second.
This time, players, fans and the media would embrace Collins, and make it more likely for others to follow him, Zeigler predicted.
"That reaction will empower (other) people to (come out) more quickly," Zeigler said.
Collins "has come out at an interesting historic time," said Eric Anderson, an American sociologist who studies homosexuality in sport at the University of Winchester in the United Kingdom. "We are riding a wave of acceptability."
Anderson argued that the reaction to Collins' announcement will be noteworthy in that many people, especially those under 30, will just shrug.
"For a decade we thought it was going to be this ginormous big deal, but we've had so many pro-gay professional athletes making pro-gay statements that it's kind of not a big deal anymore," Anderson said. "This is a profound cultural moment, but for the youth, they're going to think, 'Yeah, so what?'"
But Anderson also warned against assuming Collins' coming out would spark a flood of similar announcements.
"Don't underestimate the power of the closet," he said. "It can be a pretty deep place."
NBC Bay Area's Jodi Hernandez contributed to this report.