Yesterday, Jason Collins became the first openly gay (and currently active) professional American athlete in a team sport. Nobody in the sports world should be shocked by the news. In fact, in previous months we were given direct advanced notice: “A gay professional athlete in major American sports plans to come out.” And living in a world where breaking news can literally spread throughout the globe within minutes, getting any kind of notice about this stripped nearly all shock value. But as Collins said in Sports Illustrated:
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 Collins said, he’s “happy to start the conversation,” which is exactly what will happen across all sports. The response thus far has been overwhelmingly supportive. Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Kevin Durant all offered supportive tweets. That’s not to say there wasn’t pushback.
Analyst Chris Broussard commented on ESPN that living openly as a homosexual is akin to “walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ.”
A human being cannot live in fear of their identity, a value that many surfers likely share simply because of what we do. We escape. We find refuge. We play. And every time we get out of the water, (no matter how many times our teachers told us surfers were beach bums) we feel like we are better people because of it. This is something any athlete across the globe can relate to on some level. In Collins’ case, until now, he has had to find a balance between that joy of the game while hiding who he is on basketball’s biggest stage.
In the world of mainstream sports this is gigantic news. Collins, a 34-year-old free agent who has averaged less than 4 points and 4 rebounds a game in a little over a decade in the NBA, is far from a superstar. But the 7-foot tall Stanford graduate has progressed a conversation that has and always will be a topic of social equality. Looking at this through the lens of the surf community, often considered an already misogynistic sport, it’s a chance to evaluate our own place in the realm of current events. Nightly episodes of SportsCenter will carry the conversation, more and more athletes will come out, and soon the topic will even be more prominent in our lineups. Ironically enough this news broke just three days after I sat down with the founder of this site for a television interview. We spent an hour talking about sports’ ability to transcend what happens on the field, on the court, or in our case, the ocean.
“When you paddle out there’s no lines. It affords you a certain way of looking at things…” is a statement that sticks out in my mind as I’ve watched the interview several times, wondering how the biggest news in today’s mainstream sports world will eventually shape what we see and hear in the lineup.
You see, Jason Collins may be the first openly gay male athlete to come out in America, but what if it were somebody in the Top 45? Collins will share a locker room with teammates that will have any number of reactions to his sexuality. Many will be supportive; countless will be inspired. But some will definitely be scared, offended, or a mixture of both. Jason Collins will continue his NBA career after this week’s news, which is something no professional athlete in America has ever done.
What if next year’s ASP World Champ, Australian, Hawaiian, South African, or American shared the same thing with all of us as Collins did this week? Would you think twice about your choice of words when you heckle a friend for not taking a set wave? Because we all know one of the top three things you’ll hear somebody called in that scenario. Surfing is a global community. We are exposed to more diversity than most people in the world simply because we jump into an entity that physically connects the entire planet. Economic, race, religion, all barriers are non-existent in the water. So while the news that is about to shake up mainstream sports grows from here on out, we have a choice: do we as a community keep up with – or fall behind the times?