Jason Collins barely slept on the final weekend of April 2013. The 34-year-old NBA center was about to reveal that he was gay, becoming the first athlete in four major American professional sports to do so, in a Sports Illustrated cover story. Following his interview, he and his agent spent the days leading up to the historic announcement calling his family, friends, and peers "out of respect" for the people in his life.
The 13-year NBA journeyman, who played three seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, has since garnered praise for breaking down long-standing barriers to gay male athletes. This week Collins will take part in a CNN Dialogues panel focused on social responsibility and professional athletes. In a recent conversation with Creative Loafing Collins spoke about the NBA's growing tolerance for gay athletes, Atlanta's impact on his coming out, and his potential plans for retirement.
Sixteen months ago, you became the first openly gay male athlete in the four major American professional sports. What has the overall reaction, good or bad, been since Sports Illustrated published the article?
The biggest takeaway was the amount of support in society for gay athletes. The reaction I got when I signed with the [Brooklyn] Nets — from my teammates, coaches, ownerships, fans, and the NBA community — was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. It shows you that, when it comes to athletics, that it isn't really about your religion, your race, your sexual orientation; it's about being able to compete and help your team win ball games. It's all about performance.
In your article, you discuss how the 2011 NBA lockout was a catalyst for later coming out. You played for the Atlanta Hawks during that time. What role did Atlanta play in that process?
I lived Downtown one year and Midtown for two years. Midtown has a very cool LGBT environment. I was living in one of those apartment buildings and would always look out the window and think, "It sure looks like fun down there!" [laughs] I used to go running through Piedmont Park a lot. On the way back to where I lived, I'd go past restaurants and see LGBT people enjoying things like Sunday brunch. Seeing positive examples of people living their lives. It did help knowing that life might eventually be my life.
Atlanta is a city with a vibrant LGBT community. But Georgia still has a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in place. Did you keep tabs on LGBT rights while you lived here? If so, how did you feel about it?
I was more than aware. I had a "Welcome to the South" moment. I was on the ninth green at the Chastain Park golf course in Buckhead and a Caucasian young man said the "n-word" to me. Not only was I aware of LGBT issues, but also racial [discrimination]. We've advanced a long way in this country from when my grandmother grew up in upstate Louisiana under Jim Crow laws. We still have a lot of work to do as far as overcoming racial issues. They're now going on in other parts of the country. It's going on in Missouri right now. That's part of the reason why I talk about being black and gay. There are constant reminders [of both] with regards to the equality in this country.
Where do you think the NBA stands today on LGBT issues? What are the biggest barriers that still exist?
There was a big media reaction with cameras for my first game. But after about two weeks, it died down. I would have a game and no one would ask me a question. It was literally back to business as usual. Female athletes have been doing this for years and are still playing. Male athletes have some catching up to do being out there. But that story can only be written about in so many ways before it goes back to being about the sport.
The NBA has made it clear that certain language is no longer acceptable. If anyone hears you using certain language, it's a minimum $50,000 fine. Leadership sets the tone for what is and isn't accepted. That trickles down to ownership, head coaches, and players. Younger athletes look to professional athletes when they're on the playground.
A recent news report said that you had to explain what the abbreviation LGBT meant at the NBA's rookie summit. How did you respond to that question?
I wasn't shocked that someone asked that question. I'm actually proud of him that he wanted to know. They're coming from a place of a lack of exposure. But they're curious to know how to help their teammate feel like he's one of us, part of the team, part of the family. You have to ask those questions.
If someone is coming from that place, I will always engage with that person. But you can see on Twitter, some people think they can be anonymous and post comments that come from a place of hate. I don't engage with those people. That wasn't the case with the NBA [rookie summit]. Those guys want to be a good teammate.
You've recently thought about retiring from the NBA. Where do you stand now?
I'm honestly stuck right now. I told myself I'd make a decision in mid-September about whether I want to keep playing or move on to other passions in my life. I'm still in shape if I decide to give basketball one more go. ... Right now I'm really just enjoying my summer. I went to London for the first time for Wimbledon. I'm also enjoying my time going around the country talking about civil rights issues. I'm going out there and giving people a face, not just an abstract concept, to break down prejudices, misconceptions, and stereotypes.