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Were you picturing a press conference complete with a phalanx of friends, family, coach, teammates, maybe even a partner—on some 50-yard line, some home plate, at center ice in Madison Square Garden? Is the man the type you envisioned? Were you fearing that he'd be too effeminate? Too butch? Too ... normal? Come on now: We all had a vague idea of what it would look and feel like when America saw its first gay man come out in a major team sport.
Was Jason Collins ever on your short list?
Wait. Let's pause to clear the room of anyone who didn't sign up for this. We're not talking about the hard-liners who condemn homosexuality as an abomination; they're already pulling out of the parking lot. We mean the people who groan when sports become a stage for social and political change, who want their games to remain oases of simplicity in a muddled world. We've heard you for half a century, always in the wake of stories about Muhammad Ali or John Carlos or Renée Richards or Pat Tillman or apartheid or AIDS or disability. Stick to reporting on games, you invariably say. If I wanted a story about race/politics/sexual revolution, I'd read Ebony/The New York Times/The Village Voice ....
If that is you, then it bears stating outright: We are not the magazine you want us to be this week, if we ever were. Sports, after all, are where America happens. And as much as it stands as one man's emancipation proclamation, Jason Collins's statement in these pages demonstrates, like little else, that we are hardly the nation we were 10, five, even two years ago. That his decision will spark only more change, at an even higher speed, seems a dead-solid certainty. But when, as in this case, our endlessly analyzed, wildly popular world of sports finally emerges as the last, lagging indicator of a cultural shift well under way, the question bears asking: How did we get here?
"One by one, baby," said tennis great and social activist Billie Jean King in mid-April. "You've got to push—one by one by one by one. You've got to just push all the time to get a little bit of movement. And then eventually there's that tipping point where, finally, it's more of a cascade. From glacier to flood."
Indeed, with the broader culture absorbing so many recent advances—the 2011 repeal of the U.S. military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, the rocketing rise in popular support and state sanction for gay marriage—sports' absence from the conversation was becoming thunderingly conspicuous. At root, athletics is a proxy for war. When a player such as 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver feels comfortable enough to declare, as he did at Super Bowl media day in January, that he wouldn't welcome gays in his locker room ("They gotta get up outta here.... Can't be with that sweet stuff")—even after they've been seamlessly integrated into the greatest military machine in history—the proxy can only come off as spectacularly out of touch.
But now, 32 years after King was outed by her former partner in a palimony suit and instantly lost $2 million in endorsements; 15 years after the world's first openly gay soccer player, Justin Fashanu, killed himself; six years after former NBA star Tim Hardaway declared, "I hate gay people"; the figure long awaited in activist circles—and dubbed, by some, Athlete One—has arrived.
"This," says the 69-year-old King, "has been one of my prayers."
Like every person interviewed for this story—save one—she had no idea how soon it would be answered.
How will it play out? The only thing obvious now is that Collins's decision was made in an athletic climate far different from that in which King spent most of her life. Smear the Queer, after all, was a game once played anytime three kids picked up a football. But in 2011, NBA commissioner David Stern fined Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant $100,000—and then Bulls center Joakim Noah $50,000—for using antigay slurs during a game. That summer players from eight major league teams filmed spots for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth support group It Gets Better. In early April, Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice was fired after ESPN aired a tape of him physically and verbally abusing his players—"f---ing f------" and "f---ing fairies," he called them—during practices.