Jim Young/Reuters  Jason Collins, left, 98, during a game against the Chicago Bulls this month.

Jason Collins, left, 98 photo credit: Jim Young/Reuters

Today marks a groundbreaking turn of events in the world of LGBTQ equality and professional sports. Jason Collins, a 12-year pro playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA), has come out as gay. Collins—who split the 2012-2013 season between the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards—is the only openly gay male athlete in the NBA, National Football League, National Hockey League, or in Major League Baseball, and is the first athlete in any of these professional leagues to come out while still playing.

NBA Commissioner David Stern released a statement welcoming the announcement: “Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career,” Stern said, “and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue.”

Pride Foundation has had great opportunities to partner with northwest professional sports teams such as the Seattle Storm (of the Women’s National Basketball Association) and the Sounders FC (Major League Soccer). We consider ourselves fortunate to have been able to build and expand those relationships over the years. While we know that LGBTQ equality and professional sports are not mutually exclusive, that fact can be hard to reconcile most of the time.

The saying goes: if you can see it, you can be it. Unfortunately, with such a lack of out gay folks in professional sports, it is hard to see our community represented, hard for young gay athletes to imagine joining the professional ranks, hard for professional players who are LGBTQ to come out.

Jason Collins’ step in coming out is a big one, especially in light of anti-gay slurs still used across all levels of sports. Recognizing this as a problem, most leagues will charge fines for gay slurs spoken audibly/visually during televised games. Many teams now have training programs in place. The You Can Play Project was founded in 2012 by NHL scout, Patrick Burke, with the goal of partnering with teams, athletes, coaches, and fans who were willing to come forward and help positively change sports culture to be inclusive and supportive of LGBT athletes. Clearly there is a growing understanding that the time is right and that sports teams are ready to do more.

Various studies and surveys, such as this one by USA Network and a similar one by Sports Illustrated have demonstrated that fans—on the whole—do not believe there should be any barriers to out gay athletes playing professionally. However, these same fans indicate they believe openly gay athletes’ sexual orientation would hurt their careers.

Clearly, as in many areas of our cultural and political sphere, we are at a turning point. Jason Collin’s coming out, while still pursuing his career as a professional athlete (he will be a free agent as of the end of this season), and in a very public way (May 6th edition of Sports Illustrated), sets a great example for others in professional basketball and other national leagues.

We commend Jason Collins for his brave step in being the first. Hopefully, as more professional athletes come out, more LGBTQ people will feel that they can join professional sports and still live public lives true to themselves. Jason’s courage will not just positively impact professional sports, but also create powerful support for LGBTQ people in communities of athletes, communities of fans.

Christina Rocks is Pride Foundation’s Community Giving Manager. Email Christina.

Posted In: Blog, Connecting Leaders