Number 98 breaks last taboo

NBA player Jason Collins caused a stir in the US this week by becoming the sport’s first active player to come out as gay, writes John Riordan

Number 98 breaks last taboo

The answer was right there all along. For months, observers of American sport wondered when a big-time athlete would break down an increasingly absurd barrier: who would be the first openly gay man to compete in one of the big four — the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.

Having completed 12 seasons in the NBA, Jason Collins signed with the Boston Celtics towards the end of last year and chose the relatively uncommon number 98. This choice wasn’t motivated by a desire to make it harder for referees to call his many fouls, as he has joked many times during this unforgettable week. It was inspired by something much deeper.

In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was “kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence” for the crime of being gay. His death, which occurred five painful days after he was actually found, was a watershed and it still resonated well over a decade later with one closeted NBA player whose occupation’s locker room etiquette kept his true identity in the shadows.

Wearing 98 was Collins’ “one small gesture of solidarity”.

“When I put on my jersey I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends.”

On Monday, he was ready to make that statement crystal clear.

At 11am New York time, Sports Illustrated went online to reveal this week’s magazine cover star: a smiling Collins, “The Gay Athlete”.

Remarkably, the world kept spinning and save for a few clumsy exceptions, the support for Collins was overwhelmingly positive.

Twitter was naturally the primary outlet for the outpouring of respect for what was undeniably a brave move. Kobe Bryant was quick out of the blocks. Donal Óg Cusack reached across the ocean. Michelle Obama tweeted and her husband called.

“Any time you pick up the phone and you’re told to hold for the President, that’s definitely out of the ordinary,” Collins told ESPN’s Bill Simmons.

His classmate at Stanford University, Chelsea Clinton, was also in touch while her father said he was fortunate to call Collins a friend.

Collins is a 34-year-old veteran with unremarkable statistics and no contract for next season. The journeyman jibe was thrown around in reference to the six teams on his CV and we were reminded often that this was not 1947 and he was not Jackie Robinson.

It’s undeniable, his decision to come out this week has boosted his hopes of continuing his career into next year and beyond. NBA commissioner David Stern will be retiring soon after a long career at the helm of one of the world’s biggest sporting organisations. Adding the Jason Collins breakthrough to his personal legacy will be top of his agenda this summer.

But Collins should have no problem finding a team anyway — not many teams have the luxury of passing up on a tenacious 7ft defender.

Meanwhile, Stern’s opposite numbers at the NFL and Major League Baseball will have watched on with envy this week. The NBA was always the front-runner for one of its own to come out, football and baseball being much more conservative, both in the dressing rooms and in the stands.

Indeed, one of the saddest examples of this was when former Green Bay Packers safety LeRoy Butler, who tweeted a simple message on Monday, “Congrats to Jason Collins”, and was subsequently asked by church pastors to not show up at a scheduled event.

Butler, who has been retired for 11 seasons, fired out a follow-up tweet: “FYI the fee was 8500$, then I was told if i removed the tweet, and apologise and ask god forgiveness, I can have the event, I said no.”

A month ago, talk emerged of the possibility of a group of footballers coming out as a unit. What nobody knew was that the wheels were already in motion for an old-world exclusive which Sports Illustrated managed to keep well under wraps. Not even last Thursday week’s editorial meeting mentioned word of the upcoming lead story.

From day one, it was a story that was carefully managed and strategically offered to an unsuspecting world.

But the eloquence of Collins’ first-person account, ghost written by Franz Lidz, dismissed any calculated motives other than to make the path clearer for young athletes.

“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport,” he wrote. “But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.”

Next time, because of him, that conversation will be kept to a minimum and it won’t be such a big deal. That will be his proudest achievement.

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