Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers Lead the Way

Although we are a sports diversity magazine, the 2013 year has, in fact, been a game changing year for gay rights in general. It makes it difficult to limit our overview of the year only to sports when every aspect of gay life has been impacted. But make no mistake – 2013 will forever be known in gay sports history as the year that professional athletes finally came out while still playing. That includes both Jason Collins of the NBA who came out while still an active player and soccer player Robbie Rogers who came out after being released from an English soccer team, retired from soccer and then was hired by the MLS’ Los Angeles Galaxy as an openly gay man.

While there are gay professional athletes who have come out (or been outed) in years past, such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova in tennis, former Olympian and WNBA player Seimone Augustus, pro boxer Orlando Cruz and pro bowler Scott Norton to name just a few, the fact that they are either women athletes or involved in a sport not viewed as macho and/or sexy (not even boxing!), means that their contributions have been discounted and undervalued by the general public.

The true interest of sports aficionados has been in a male pro athlete in one of the four major team sports – the NFL, MLB, NHL or the NBA – coming out while still an active player. Although a small number of gay male professional athletes in the big four have already come out, their announcements were made after they retired from active play. Homophobia has been so deeply entrenched in the world of professional sports that letting people know you are gay has always been considered tantamount to committing career suicide.

The first pro athlete to come out was retired NBA player John Amaechi in 2007. He was followed by NFL players David Kopay in 1977, Roy Simmons in 1992, Esera Tuaolo in 2002 and Wade Davis in 2012; and MLB players Glenn Burke (who came out to teammates) in the 1980s and Billy Bean in 1999. As yet there are no openly gay NHL players. But all this changed on April 29, 2013 when current NBA player Jason Collins announced to the world through a Sports Illustrated (SI) autobiographical essay that “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

He continued to say that “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.”

Locker rooms in the professional team sports mentioned above are well known for having such an intense macho attitude that until now, no gay athletes would allow themselves to become vulnerable by admitting they are gay. So one of the real risks for Collins was whether or not he would have the support of other NBA players once he came out. But from the moment that SI issue hit the stands, Collins was inundated with congratulations from people high and low, from U.S. President Barack Obama to other NBA players to fans and members of the general public.

Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant tweeted, “Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others.” He added the hashtags “courage” and “support” to his tweet. The NBA’s 2013 MVP, Miami’s LeBron James also praised Collins’ decision to come out. “I think it’s very noble on his part,” James told the Miami Herald. “I think it’s a strong thing to do, and I think as NBA players, we all offer him our support.”

jason_collins_StandUp055Collins had always resisted going public with his announcement because he didn’t want any media attention to distract his team and teammates. But between the season ending and the Boston Marathon bombing, he realized he couldn’t wait any longer. That horrific act reminded him how quickly and surprisingly life can change and that time is precious. Knowing that he couldn’t waste another second of his life pretending to be someone he wasn’t, he knew he had to be honest with everyone around him. Most especially, he had to be true to himself.

His announcement was such a big news story that Jason and his twin brother Jarron, another NBA player, as well as the rest of their immediate family members were interviewed by Oprah. Since then, both Jason and Jarron have been guests at any number of events, including the inaugural You Belong Camp held by Wade Davis, now executive director of the You Can Play Project, and his business partner Darnell Moore in Chicago over the summer. There they spent time with inner city LGBT youth, helping them to develop leadership skills and instill in them a sense of pride and belonging.

Happy and relieved to be out, Collins has been very supportive of the LGBTQ community, even showing up at the Nike LGBT Sports Summit in June on his own because he wanted to be part of the movement to eliminate homophobia in sports. “Openness may not completely disarm prejudice but it’s a good place to start,” Collins said in SI. “It all comes down to education. I’ll sit down with any player who’s uneasy about my coming out. Being gay is not a choice.”

But coming out was a positive choice that Collins was able to make for himself. And since making it he has never felt better. “The most you can do is stand up for what you believe in,” he wrote. “I’m much happier since coming out to my friends and family. Being genuine and honest makes me happy.”

Since Jason’s coming out, Jarron has been there to support his twin all the way, becoming a true ally to the LGBTQ community in the process. It is for their bravery both on and off the court as well as their commitment to each other, to their shared sport and to the gay community that we honored both men with our 2013 Legacy Award at the Compete Sports Diversity Awards in Los Angeles this November.

Still a free agent, as of this writing Collins has not been signed by an NBA team, causing many people to ask whether he remains unsigned because he is gay. That has been countered by those who say that in his mid-thirties, he’s simply past his prime and not worth investing precious dollars in him.

robbie_rogers_StandUp238Approximately ten years younger than Collins, Robbie Rogers started his coming out by using the traditional process of retiring first and then making the announcement that he was gay. On February 15, 2013, just weeks after being released by the Leeds United football [soccer] team in the U.K. and after coming out to his “conservative, Catholic, close-knit” family, he made the announcement on his website that he was gay and that he was quitting soccer.

Rogers wrote, “I’m a soccer player, I’m Christian, and I’m gay. Those are things that people might say wouldn’t go well together. But my family raised me to be an individual and to stand up for what I believe in.” He continued to write that “I realized I could only truly enjoy my life once I was honest. Honesty is a bitch but makes life so simple and clear. My secret is gone, I am a free man, I can move on and live my life as my creator intended.”

In an interview with Matthew Breen of OUT Magazine, Rogers shared that “Growing up, I learned that being gay was a sin … It was not something you could be, and it wasn’t something my family would talk about much – it was obviously something that scared the shit out of me.”

But Rogers’ website post had immediately elicited lots of personal support for him from soccer players everywhere as well as this statement of support issued by U.S. Soccer: “As a Federation we support all our athletes who have had the courage to address this deeply personal topic. We are proud of Robbie. He has been an outstanding representative of our National Team program for many years. We support him and wish him great success in the future.” And Frank Klopas, head coach of MLS’ Chicago Fire, indicated that if Rogers wanted to play again, he’d welcome him to the Fire.

Then on May 1, just one day after Jason Collins’ coming out where he had credited Robbie Rogers for having “blazed a trail” for him to follow, Rogers joined MLS’ LA Galaxy in training as a “special guest.” While there, he made a decision to return to professional soccer. He revealed that what prompted his decision was speaking to a group of approximately 500 courageous LGBT youth in Portland, Oregon, saying that they made him feel like a coward for not stepping up to change the world like they were doing.

After paperwork trading him from the Fire (he never played for them but they held his rights) to the Galaxy was official on May 24, just two days later Robbie Rogers played his first match for the Galaxy, making him the first active openly gay male athlete in major U.S team sports. And it is for his courageous decision to move sports diversity forward that we honored him with our 2013 Professional Athlete of the Year award at the Compete Sports Diversity Awards in Los Angeles this November.

Only time will tell the final outcome of Jason Collins’ and Robbie Rogers’ coming out stories and whether or not they prove to be the long-awaited tipping point for other professional gay athletes in the four major American team sports and beyond to come out. But the positive effects these two have created have already started the change process. Like water running downhill, it will only continue to gather power and speed until it sweeps away any remaining blockages that keep gay athletes from competing openly and honestly … at any level.

Photo by Compete Sports Diversity