By coming out on the court, NBA player Jason Collins challenges what straight guys consider a 'man.'
While there's been preemptive support for any gay male player who would want to come out, no one took the plunge until Collins. Several male athletes have come out over the years—among them the NFL's Dave Kopay and Esera Tuaolo—but these athletes only came out after retirement. In this respect, Collins is in a league of his own as the first self-outed, gay, pro athlete who is still actively playing.
Given the lack of media interest in self-identified lesbians in sports (sans Ms. Navratilova), and the fervor of attention being placed on the male athletes—from the retired to Mr. Collins—this seems not to be a gay thing or a sports thing. This seems to be a man thing. We all know there are gay men in sports; we just don't talk about it. We seem to be comfortable embracing a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in sports, with many men seemingly thinking, "It's OK that I see my favorite quarterback playfully smack his teammates while on the field ... just don't tell me he really means it."
The reasons for this from a social standpoint are more disturbing. With more women entering the workforce, taking on the "provider" role, men no longer have a sense of what "masculine" means. They've lost their commonplace roles and instead of looking internally for a renewed sense of masculinity, many men identify externally with other men ... like athletes. These are the reasons men wear other mens' names on sports jerseys and cheer for their teams with other men. It's tribal, aggressive and warrioristic. So when something happens to upset that tribe—like Jason Collins identifies as gay—their internal sense of masculinity becomes out of balance. They think, "I wanted to be like him. I even have his jersey. I rooted for him every weekend for years. Now, I find out he's gay. Does that mean I'm gay? How could he betray me this way and make me gay?"
As for the gay athletes themselves, why do these men wait to claim the reality of their sexuality? Why wait until a career is over, spending time and energy outwardly lying to people with whom you spend hours and hours every day, living a personal life that is shrouded in secrecy—perhaps lies— to cover the truth? The reason is very straightforward: acceptance. There's a big difference between tolerance and acceptance. Tolerance is defined as "a permissive attitude" toward something. Acceptance is to just let the something be. Athletes don't want to take the chance of being tolerated.
As of late, there has been a surge of interest on the part of the media to "out" players in their sexuality. What sports reporters don't understand is that the headlines they're chasing aren't just about the athletes themselves. They're also about the men who admire and worship these athletes and their abilities. Unfortunately, many men (and women) are still living in a shortsighted world, where "gay" equates to "weak" and these sports fans might not be ready for a harsh truth. There are more gay men and women in professional sports than you think and what we see today is really just the beginning. Gary J. Gates, a senior research fellow at The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy and author of The Gay and Lesbian Atlas, estimates that one in 10 men are gay or have same-sex attraction. Given that there are 1,696 men in the NFL and 1,280 in Major League Baseball, that's just shy of 300 gay athletes in those two sports alone. As of yet, we don't know who they are ... but hang on a second.
Kudos to Jason Collins for embracing who he is and staying true to himself as a man, as a player and as a member of the LGBT community. Hopefully, the notion of "gay athlete" will quickly become a moniker of the past, and the men and women who play will once again be just "professional athletes." Until then, sports fans need to brace themselves for a coming out party.