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Susan Estrich: NBA’s Jason Collins Breaks Barrier in Coming Out as Gay

It is almost unbelievable that this is a first.

But it is. Jason Collins is the first male athlete playing in a major sport to “come out.”

Yes — the first in any of the five major leagues.

The president applauded him for his courage. Chelsea Clinton, his college classmate, and her dad both spoke out in support of him. So did Kobe Bryant, who two years ago was fined $100,000 for making an anti-gay slur to an official. NBA Commissioner David Stern praised Collins for assuming a “leadership mantle on this very important issue.”

Collins deserves all of this praise and more.

Of course, Collins is not your ordinary professional athlete. He is far better educated, more articulate and more sophisticated than at least 90-something percent of the men who play professional sports. He attended one of the finest and most elite prep schools in the country, Harvard-Westlake, with the children of some of the wealthiest and best-connected people in the world. He went on to Stanford, where he hung out with the president’s daughter. Surely none of this should take away from his courage, but it does make clear just how far professional sports have to go.

It is simply not possible that Collins is the only gay man playing professional sports in America. Not possible. That even Collins, with his education and connections, felt the need to stay in the closet so long speaks volumes about why his announcement matters. It was only last February that Chris Culliver of the San Francisco 49ers said he would not accept a gay teammate. (He was forced to apologize, but frankly, so what?) Grant Hill of the Clippers was quoted, this season, as saying that gays are “still taboo in the locker room.”

Still taboo in the locker room. The last plantation of intolerance?

Not in the military. Not in Congress. Certainly not in Hollywood. Nine states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to wed. Rhode Island is about to be the 10th. If you ask me, the U.S. Supreme Court soon will hold that the federal government cannot discriminate against same-sex couples and that California cannot revoke their right to marry. If not this year, then soon, I expect the court to hold that the Constitution requires such recognition.

So why can’t a gay man play football or basketball or baseball without hiding his sexual orientation? Who cares who he sleeps with if he can catch and throw and make the shot?

That gays should be taboo while brutality, abuse and violence have been accepted is stunning, to say the least.

Collins has made a stand and in public, anyway, is receiving broad and vocal support. What’s being whispered in locker rooms is no doubt another story. Ignorance is not eliminated by the courage of one man and the support of two presidents. And Collins, a free agent, is officially unemployed. Whether another team will hire him, who knows?

But for gay kids who are playing sports in playgrounds across the country, there is finally a beacon, a role model, a man to look up to, to realize that you can be a great male athlete, still showering in the locker room (assuming he does for at least another season), and a proud gay man.

It should not have taken until 2013. There should be more than one man standing up. But last week there were none. Progress may be slow, but it is still progress. It is clear which way the wind is blowing. Once, Jackie Robinson stood alone. Someday we will say the same of Jason Collins.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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