Something got lost in the excitement and backlash over Jason Collins' brave admission that he is gay: the genesis of his jersey number.
"My one small gesture of solidarity was to wear jersey number 98 with the Celtics and then the Wizards. The number has great significance to the gay community. One of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days after he was finally found.... When I put on my jersey I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends."
Collins says that he struggled with his own feelings for the early part of his life and career. However, if you want to pinpoint the first step he made toward coming out, it was changing his jersey number to honor the man whose death was so impactful that it changed US laws. Debate the merits of the word "hero" all you want, but that gesture is indicative of the monumental importance of Collins coming out. Someone has to go first, just to show others who are struggling that they are not alone.
A quick personal story: For several years I worked for a gay news outlet. I covered national stories about gay rights, same-sex marriage, and hate crime legislation, in addition to myriad local stories of discrimination and outright oppression. It doesn't matter that I am a straight man - I was deeply affected by stories of gay men and women denied housing because of their sexual orientation, or denied visitation rights to loved ones, or attacked in the streets because of their sexuality, or worse.
I learned about Matthew Shepard from my boss at the time. My boss became a journalist and moved to Wyoming a few years prior to Matthew Shepard's death, and lived a semi-closeted life in Shepard's hometowns of Laramie and Casper for years. Living in Wyoming before Shepard's murder, before hate crime legislation and shifting public perception, his life was literally in danger because of his sexual orientation. In the United States. Not hundreds of years ago, not even 50 years ago - just 15 years ago, in a time of internet and cell phones and cable news.
That sort of hatred still exists today, in present-day America. Collins proved it himself Monday, via the wave of criticism either disagreeing with his "lifestyle" or his manner of coming out. It reminded me of another huge admission by an NBA player - Magic Johnson admitting he was HIV positive in 1991. It's a clunky comparison for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that HIV and homosexuality are inextricably linked in most people's minds despite the fact that HIV can and does affect anyone. But it was two men in a high-profile position putting their careers at risk by revealing something about their personal life, and Magic's admission had a very profound affect on sports in general and America at large.
Watching ESPN's 30 For 30 documentary on the subject, I was struck by how much debunking Magic had to do over the next several months and years. There's a particular clip of Magic on a TV show, hugging a little girl with HIV as she cries over the fact that other children won't play with her because of her disease. Magic undoubtedly changed people's perception of HIV/AIDS, and changed lives as a result.
It's a lot to pin on Collins, but he has a chance to seriously change the world by taking a risk and letting people into his personal life. The world is cruel, but the sports world is particularly cruel, and more so in the age of the internet. Collins has opened himself up to praise, but also to a lot of hatred. In the moments after the Sports Illustrated story went live, I checked Collins' Wikipedia page and saw his name had been changed to "Jason 'The Queer' Collins." And that's probably the least of the vitriol bashed into keyboards across the web yesterday.
If Collins' bravery Monday, if his admission that he's struggled with suicide and depression and wrestled with his feelings for years helped even one person come to terms with their own struggle, he is a hero. It doesn't matter if you disagree with his sexuality because of religious or moral reasons. He probably doesn't care, and the majority of the country doesn't agree with you. What matters is that he was the most high profile drop of what will be a trickle and eventually a steady stream of gay athletes coming forward and embracing who they are.
It's not often that sports are at the forefront of anything. Basketball has been basically the same since they introduced the three-point line in 1979, and now finds itself as the launching pad for what will hopefully be a social revolution. The NBA's legacy is in the caliber of play and the way it has influenced the zeitgeist via Air Jordans, transcendant superstars and globalization. Now it can be the second league (after the NHL) to embrace the future and the first to really prove it.
It sounds like hyperbole, as if I'm overstating the importance of one well-traveled veteran making an admission that will probably be forgotten as soon as Tim Tebow finds a new team. But in a way, it was the best situation possible: if a superstar had come out, the focus would not have been on gay rights, it would have been on the "scandal." Instead, six different fan bases woke up Monday and found out that their team used to have a pioneer on the roster. Hopefully he can find a place to wear number 98 next year as well.
Image via Kwaku Alston/For Sports Illustrated