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Making history: NBA player Jason Collins comes out

It’s finally happened: a non-retired athlete has announced he’s gay.

His name is Jason Collins. He’s a center in the NBA. Over the course of his career Collins has played for six teams. He’s not a star player, but he has made his mark in history.

It’s about time.

In a Sports Illustrated cover story, Collins wrote:

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.
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.”

As a nation, we’ve come a long way towards accepting openly gay people. We’ve been debating gay marriage for the past 10 years after the Massachusetts State Supreme Court effectively legalized it in there. Gay marriage is legal in nine states and in Washington. A recent CBS news poll even shows a gradual acceptance of it, 53 percent of Americans support it.

But, there’s always been one area that seemed to be on a different page when it comes to gay rights — professional sports. Two years ago, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 for using a gay slur. There are no openly gay athletes in the NFL, NHL or major league baseball.

At the beginning of this season, Collins signed a one- year deal with the Boston Celtics. At the trade deadline he was traded to the Washington Wizards. For both teams he wore No. 98. In his coming out story he explained how that was the first step to admitting publically who he was.

“A college classmate tried to persuade me to come out then and there. But I couldn’t yet. My one small gesture of solidarity was to wear jersey number 98 with the Celtics and then the Wizards. The number has great significance to the gay community. One of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days after he was finally found. That same year the Trevor Project was founded. This amazing organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to kids struggling with their sexual identity. Trust me, I know that struggle. I’ve struggled with some insane logic. When I put on my jersey I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends.”

Jason Collins became a free agent at the end of the season. Next season, he’ll try to find his way onto a roster. He’s still good enough to play about 15 minutes per game. One team should sign him based on his ability to help the squad. Heck, he’s already played 12 seasons as a gay man, he just didn’t tell anyone.

For Collins’ teammates, his announcement doesn’t change who he is. It merely changes what they know about him.

As for the NBA, the league has the chance to set the trend in how a professional sport will handle openly gay athletes. The teams and the players can accept it. Or they can reject it while more and more Americans are coming to terms with it and risk further irrelevancy as a sport. The choice is theirs.

Jason Collins deserves credit for coming out. He’s not the first male athlete to admit he’s gay but he’s the first one to say so while still looking to play.

It’s never easy to be the first but by doing so Collins could bring gay acceptance to even new heights.