The NBA's First Openly Gay Player Is Leaving the League With a Powerful Message

AP

Jason Collins, the first openly gay player to play in the National Basketball Association, is now the first openly gay player to retire from the league. After playing 16 seasons on seven teams, Collins is calling it quits.

In his goodbye essay for Sports Illustrated, Collins reflected on his decision to come out and the impact that he hopes to have on the acceptance of gay professional athletes. Even if they haven't come out publicly, Collins wrote, they're out there.

"There are still no publicly gay players in the NFL, NHL or Major League Baseball. Believe me: They exist. Every pro sport has them. I know some of them personally. When we get to the point where a gay pro athlete is no longer forced to live in fear that he'll be shunned by teammates or outed by tabloids, when we get to the point where he plays while his significant other waits in the family room, when we get to the point where he's not compelled to hide his true self and is able to live an authentic life, then coming out won't be such a big deal. But we're not there yet."

Mr. Irrelevant: Collins broke barriers by coming out, but it's his ordinary play once that story died down that may leave an even more lasting impact.

The reaction to Collins — and the reaction to real and hypothetical coming out stories — was often to decry a player's sexuality as a distraction. "I have nothing against gay people," a radio host or television personality or Internet commenter might say, "but why sign someone who will just bring in media attention and distract the team?"

When Collins signed with the Brooklyn Nets, of course, there was plenty of (well-deserved) media attention. His jersey even became one the NBA's best sellers. But as the season went on, he became just another player. Collins writes: 

"It had been argued that no team would want to take on a player who was likely to attract a media circus from the outset and whose sexuality would be a distraction. I'm happy to have helped put those canards to rest. The much-ballyhooed media blitz to cover me unscrambled so quickly that a flack jokingly nicknamed me Mr. Irrelevant."

Behind the scenes: That's not to say, of course, that an athlete coming out is irrelevant. It just serves to allay the subtly homophobic complaints that a team would only sign Collins for publicity, or that the team's play would be compromised by his presence.

Collins played a much more important role helping other gay athletes behind the scenes than he did during the Nets' playoff run. He helped mentor Derrick Gordon, the University of Massachusetts basketball player who became the first openly gay man in college basketball when he came out in April.

As future gay athletes decide to come out, it's likely they'll turn to Collins for advice. Hopefully when we look back, we'll have a more accurate word for Collins than "distraction" — inspiration.