But it's clear that tolerance is growing, fast. How did we get here? Collins's words make his route fairly clear. But what about the rest of us? Consider Paul Tagliabue. The former NFL commissioner is like every other straight person who woke up. He knew somebody. Two, actually.
The first was an older first cousin, Thomas. Tagliabue grew up hard-line Roman Catholic in Jersey City, Thomas in Brooklyn, and the two loved to go to Dodgers games. When the adults talked about Thomas in front of the kids, they spoke Italian. Divorce, cancer, homosexuality: You kept such subjects from being discussed in the open.
"He committed suicide," Tagliabue said last Saturday. "He was gay; we were growing up together in the '50s as teenagers and my uncle basically tortured his son. There's no other word for it."
Tagliabue went on to be a lawyer, did pro bono work for the ACLU, was always a student of Jesse Owens. The fact that Hitler had persecuted not just blacks and Jews but also homosexuals never left him. In 1989, the year Tagliabue took over as commissioner, his son, Andrew, came out to his parents. "I'm going from being a member of an upper-middle class family to becoming a member of the most hated group in America," Drew told them.
"So at that point you say to yourself, Why is this so? Did he do something that made him gay? Did we do something? Or was he born gay?" Paul said. "And you look back at your life and say, 'He sure as hell never did anything. We never did anything, so that must be what he is. That's the way you're born.' So we accepted it and moved on."
Tagliabue retired as commissioner in 2006, though he still serves as a consultant. He does not advise the NFL on LGBT issues, though he would if asked. In 2011 he and his wife, Chan, donated more than $1 million to Georgetown, his alma mater, for its LGBTQ (the Q is for Questioning) Resource Center, the first at a U.S. Catholic university. Last fall Tagliabue contributed $100,000 to the Maryland campaign to legalize same-sex marriage and another $50,000 to the campaign in Maine. "I think the NFL is ready," he said. The world has changed. Everybody knows somebody.
"It's no longer a secret who's gay, who's lesbian," he added. "In my own experience I see cousins who started off horrified if you said someone was gay, and then they'd find out that their next-door neighbor had a gay son or their next-door neighbors were a gay couple, and all of a sudden it's, 'Hey, he's my closest friend and it doesn't make a damn bit of difference to me. As long as he cuts his lawn—and roots for the Giants.' "
For today, this week, next season, naturally, this sporting life will feel a bit different. But take into account the human capacity for change, and the maddening, often necessary amnesia that accompanies it. Decades after Jackie Robinson, some young black baseball players were derided for not knowing the man's name—though nothing, in fact, spoke more to the totality of his impact.
"It'll be the same thing," Buckley said. "Forty years from now there'll be an openly gay athlete who'll be criticized because he doesn't know the name of the first openly gay athlete."
For posterity's sake: It's Jason Collins, free at last. And so here we are, all of us now—did you think it would happen today?—poised to leap into sport's brave new world. Ready? Here we go.