NBA center Jason Collins has become the first openly gay athlete in a major men's American team sport.
"I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay," Collins, who is currently a free agent, wrote in a piece for Sports Illustrated that published Monday.
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"Well done Jason Collins- you are a brave man. And a big man at that:) 1981 was the year for me- 2013 is the year for you:),"tweeted former women's tennis star Martina Navratilova, who came out as a lesbian over three decades ago.
But Collins' announcement could be a big step forward in breaking down the stigma associated with openly gay athletes in men's major sports.
Public attitudes on gay rights have dramatically shifted over the past decade. And American sports leagues had already begun to prepare for the day that one of their athletes would come out of the closet. For example, the National Hockey League recently announced a formal partnership with You Can Play, an organization working to foster respect for athletes of all sexual orientations. The NBA also has partnerships with pro-gay rights groups.
NFL players like Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe have also been outspoken proponents of gay rights and even shouted down anti-gay sentiments made by other pro athletes. Some news organizations have even reported an NFL player could soon come out as gay.
But before today, no active athlete in the NFL, MLB, NBA, or NHL has done that. And it's not hard to see why. A locker-room culture that promotes conformity has also created a space for a less-than accepting attitude toward gays.
Take for example the comments of retired NBA star Tim Hardaway in 2007.
"You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known," Hardaway said during an interview with Miami sports talk-show host Dan Lebatard. "I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."
In a sign of the times, Hardaway since apologized for his remarks and two years ago, he appeared at a pro-gay rights event in El Paso, Texas.
But there are still signs that the culture needs some work. Before this year's Super Bowl, San Francisco (!) 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver said he would not accept playing with a gay teammate.
And the NFL was forced to investigate claims by some players that at least one team asked draft prospects about their sexual orientation during February's scouting combine, according to ESPN.
Collins may have summed it up best in his op-ed.
"I'm glad I'm coming out in 2013 rather than 2003," he wrote. "The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted. And yet we still have so much farther to go."
So far, Collins has received positive reaction from the rest of the NBA. League commissioner David Stern issued a statement praising Collins and well-known players like Kobe Bryant and Baron Davis tweeted their support as well.
Collins, a 12-year veteran, doesn't have a contract to play in the next season. But if he does catch on with another squad, he said he'll work to foster greater understanding for gay people among his teammates.
"I'm a veteran, and I've earned the right to be heard," he wrote. "I'll lead by example and show that gay players are no different from straight ones. I'm not the loudest person in the room, but I'll speak up when something isn't right. And try to make everyone laugh."