April 30, 2013 at 7:46 AM ET
With NBA veteran Jason Collins becoming the first athlete in a major team sport to come out as gay, legendary tennis player and activist Martina Navratilova believes it will not only further gay rights but also save lives.
It has been 32 years since Navratilova publicly revealed she is a lesbian in the midst of a career in which she won a record 59 total Grand Slam titles. The media and public landscape has changed dramatically since that time, and Navratilova believes the announcement by Collins should only further break down barriers while also helping youth grappling with their sexuality.
“I think the impact is immediate because we’re talking about it,’’ Navratilova told Matt Lauer on TODAY Tuesday. “It’s an everyday word now. We don’t have to hide. For Jason, I think it’s going to make a big difference in his life. I think it already has, but most of all, he will sleep better at night.
“He is really leading the way in being the first major-leaguer to come out. I can’t believe it’s 32 years after I came out, but better late than never. It just puts it on the front page, and most of all, we don’t want being gay to be an issue. I think Jason coming out this way is going to push that forward a little bit, and most of all, he is going to save lives, there is no doubt in my mind. There is some kid out there who is not going to commit suicide because Jason is out.”
On Monday, Collins revealed his sexuality in a first-person article posted on Sports Illustrated’s website that is also featured as the cover story in this week’s magazine issue. The story begins with Collins writing, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.’’
During his 10 seasons in the NBA, he kept his sexuality a secret from everyone, including his own twin brother, Jarron Collins, even getting engaged to a woman at one point. Watching his former Stanford University roommate, U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, march at Boston’s gay pride parade in 2012 nearly persuaded him to join Kennedy and reveal his sexuality.
The Boston Marathon bombings on April 15 played a role in Collins deciding to publicly come out. “Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?" Collins wrote.
His announcement drew support and praise from President Obama, former President Bill Clinton, former teammates and coaches, NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, and a host of other major athletes across other sports. It’s a far cry from Navratilova’s own announcement in 1981, which was not greeted with any outpouring from fans, phone calls from the president, or vocal support by a wide swath of other athletes.
“The support that Jason is getting and any gay athlete is getting, we don’t want it to be a big deal, but it is because we don’t have equal rights,’’ Navratilova said. “The media has done a 180, the fans have done a 180, and now you’re getting support when you come out. The monkey is off your back.
“Nobody wants to go back in the closet once they come out. I’m sure there will be other athletes that come out, but with each one it will be less of a big deal, and that’s what we’re all about.”
With Collins deciding to go public, speculation follows about whether other male athletes in major team sports will also come out of the closet.
“I’m sure that some will come out,’’ Navratilova said. “They will play better ball because it takes so much energy to be hiding who you are. Jason hid it from his twin brother – that’s how far in the closet he was. You really cannot be who you are unless you are out there.”
“I’m not sure that this is going to be some great big door swinging open wide now, that they’ll be six players coming out next week,” New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica told Lauer. “Women have been doing this in sports for a long time, and women have been more accepting about this. It just kind of verifies that women are a lot smarter and cooler about this stuff, and I’m hoping that that transfers now to guys.”
Collins finished this past season with the Washington Wizards after being traded by the Boston Celtics, and the 10-year veteran is now a free agent who is not currently with a team. He is not a star, with career averages of three points and three rebounds per game, and is more known for physical defense and setting picks.
“It will be interesting to see when it’s like the second-best quarterback in the National Football League, when it’s some huge star,’’ Lupica said. “It’s also going to be interesting to see if Jason Collins, who does not have a job for next season, is inhibited from getting a job because of this announcement.”
The announcement by Collins comes in the midst of a greater discussion about gay rights and equality across the nation and the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.
“In the greater context, I hope the league of old men and women on the Supreme Court are paying attention to this, because same-sex marriage and the constitutionality is probably going to be heard in June,’’ Lupica said. “I hope they’re looking at the reaction to this in the country because it’s really, really important. This is a human rights issue. It’s not a civil rights issue.’’