The First but Not the Last.

In 2010 Sports Illustrated published an interview with Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas titled The Only Openly Gay Male Athlete.  As of this past Monday, almost exactly three years later, Thomas is no longer alone; pro basketball player Jason Collins wrote an article for the same magazine that begins with the statement “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”.

Collins made history this week as the first current player in a major American sport to come out. Speculation has been developing in recent years, not about Collins specifically, but over who would be the first and when they would decide to come forward. In 2011 a Gallup poll proved that a majority of Americans (53%) were in favor of legalizing gay marriage; attitudes on the issue of sexual orientation have been changing rapidly in recent years, and support for the gay community has grown along with rising disapproval of homophobic attitudes.

Earlier this year San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made several anti-gay comments during a media session for the Super Bowl. His statement and discriminatory attitude were disappointing and hurtful; both the public and other professional athletes reacted by overwhelmingly condemning his remarks, and a day later Culliver issued an apology.

While preparing for the Sport in Society discussion course Out of Bounds, another intern and I contacted Aaron McQuade, the Director of News & Field Media at GLAAD, and had the opportunity to interview him about gay athletes and their portrayal in various sports media. We talked about the Culliver incident, and McQuade felt that it was actually a chance for a dialogue, especially when so many other athletes countered his homophobia. The support shown by various current and former athletes in pro American sports proves how attitudes about the LBGTQ community are shifting.

Ideally, Collins’ statement will only further this shift, and hence further the conversation about masculinity and homosexuality in sports. Except this time, the discussion won’t be ABOUT the gay professional athlete, and will instead be WITH one.  Three years ago, Gareth Thomas asked Sports Illustrated “All the diversity in America, and no one there has done this?” Jason Collins can now answer that question as America’s first out pro athlete, but certainly not the last.