Why Jason Collins’ revelation of being gay will say more about us than it will him

One of the last professional sports barriers has supposedly been hurdled. We were all set for a Jackie Robinson moment here.

Except this isn’t it.

Does it really matter? Yes, and no. Is the timing right? Sure, and who knows.

As we take this all in, hash over the ramifications of such a statement and examine our own fears and stereotypes, maybe the only thing we’re fairly certain about Jason Collins’so-called landmark revelation this morning about his sexual orientation is that it’ll end up being more about us reacting to it than him admitting to it.

The pride of Harvard Westlake basketball’s program years ago picked in a Sports Illustrated cover story space to admit that, at the tail end of his NBA career, he’s as comfortable marching in a gay pride parade as he is boxing out Blake Griffin for a rebound. It arrives special delivery during a curious window of opportunity in our American sports history.

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay,” Collins begins in the SI piece, apparently trying to define what’s the most important details for his legacy to date.

The way the magazine wants to define him, as well as others in the immediate conversation, is that Collins jumps to the front of the line to become the “first openly gay active athlete in a major American team sport.”  Add to that “male” team sport, and you’ve got yourself some buzz.

Somehow, it smells like this is too much about the messenger and not as much about the message.

It’s bound to get immediate reaction from those around him, those who know him best. Consider the words already from his former Harvard Westlake coach, Greg Hilliard:

“None of us who were with him in high school had any idea, and it’s just unfortunate now that it’s even a news story, as if anyone cares about it.
“I think it’s neat he decided without a whole bunch of other people who have (come out publicly). He is the one stepping up and saying something and I think that’s awesome.”

Awesome is more of what happened years ago, when the groundwork was laid by another prominent San Fernando Valley athlete. David Kopay, who prepped at Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, wrote in his 1977 autobiography about his “extraordinary self-revelation” of coming out after his NFL career ended. Kopay, living these days in Pasadena, also used the media to get his message out, proclaiming it in a Washington Star story that ran on Dec. 9, 1975.

That’s almost three years earlier to the day that Jason and twin brother Jarron were born in Northridge.

Find a copy of “The David Kopay Story” before you start talking about “first” this or “brave” that. In years since then, read up more about the lives of athletes such as tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, retired NBA player John Amaechi, former Dodgers center fielder Glenn Burke, umpire Dave Pallone, diver Greg Louganis, figure skater Rudy Gallindo and a variety of WNBA stars.

Collins doesn’t seem to be trying to advance any agenda here, except coming to grips with taking control of his own life. He’s picked a far more forgiving and  comfortable space in our sports time line to further the conversation about acceptance.

The strange thing is that by today’s media spin cycle, Collins’ first-person story could quickly be dispersed, digested and almost discarded by week’s end without any discernible resolution. It’ll be talk-show fodder for hours, with experts coming in to speculate about how NBA lockers will be changed forever — even if Collins never enters one again.

He’s a free agent, after 12 years in the league, easily replaceable in a career that may have reached an end point anyway. Where was the risk?

In truth, there’s a larger door waiting to be busted opened here, sooner more than later. Speculation has been heavy for weeks about someone from a highly masculine sport such as the NFL finally coming out, with players from the league such as former UCLA standouts Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo already prepping us for that day to happen.

That’s one reason, SI managing editor Chris Stone writes, that this Collins story had to come out now, and why he calls it a “watershed moment.”

Or, maybe just another branch in a larger river of conversation reaching new banks?

Cyd Ziegler, the editor of Outsports.com, writes today that “we knew this day would come. We didn’t know if it would be this week or next year. But now that it has, I get the feeling that, unlike David Kopay 40 years ago, this may open the door to many more in the near future when everyone sees it worked out just fine for Collins.”

Consider the lesson already learned by Kobe Bryant, the Laker who got in plenty of hot water about using  the “F-word” (the one ending in a “T”). He’s  tweeted out: “Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others #courage #support #mambaarmystandup #BYOU

We can also take direction by the words of former President Bill Clinton, who says he’s known Collins since he was attending Stanford University with his daughter Chelsea.

“It is a 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.”

We talk so much about climate change in today’s world. The clouds have opened and the sun can shine on the climate changing in degrees of acceptance in an atmosphere of sports noise today where UCLA has tried to cut through the clutter and post a video welcoming gay athletes to its program (see above).

Of course, Collins’ story does resonate. He’ll continue to tell it, starting with an appearance Tuesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

But as for it being along the lines of what Robinson did with the Dodgers in 1947, Collins’ former Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said it best today: “If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society who has to learn tolerance.”

The follow up is, looking inside, how comfortable are we keeping the dialogue moving forward, in or outside our own gym locker room?

== SI posts immediate Twitter reaction
== More from NBC News

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