The Athlete's Way

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Jason Collins: The Bravery of Coming Out

Jason Collins is the 1st player in major team sports to announce that he is gay.

Jason Collins
I came out of the closet a long time ago. As a gay athlete participating in the individual sports of Ironman triathlon and ultra-distance running, being gay wasn't a huge deal. Jason Collins of the NBA coming out today is a very big deal.

Collins is the first person in any of the 4 major league team sports to announce that he is gay while still an active player. A huge barrier has been broken. This is a great day for the advancement of equality on and off the field. It reminds me of what Jackie Robinson did in 1947. 

Jason Collins said the reason he is coming out now is that, "The recent Boston Marathon bombing reinforced the notion that I shouldn't wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect. Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?" 

This story is only a few hours old and I haven't had time to fully process it, but I did want to add my voice to the chorus of people thanking Jason Collins for his courage and share some excerpts from the Sports Illustrated interview with Psychology Today readers. Collins wrote a piece for SI magazine in advance which was released today. In his own words this is how Collins explains his process:

"I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.

I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, "I'm different." If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand.

My journey of self-discovery and self-acknowledgement began in my hometown of Los Angeles and has taken me through two state high school championships, the NCAA Final Four and the Elite Eight, and nine playoffs in 12 NBA seasons"

According to the interview, Jason Collins is deeply religious and reads from a daily prayer book that his grandmother gave him. Recently the daily prayer was called "Freedom." Collins described this prayer as a catalyst for motivating him to come out of the closet: 

"The clarion call of freedom sounds within my soul, trumpeting the truth that the love of God liberates me from unhappiness, hurt or fear. I bid farewell to any emptiness from the past, and open myself to realizing my heart's deepest longing and aspiration."

Jon Weirthem, who interviewed Collins for the story, added: "Omens aside, Collins had simply grown tired. Tired of being alone; tired of coming home to an empty house; tired of relying on Shadow, his German shepherd, for company; tired of watching friends and family members find spouses and become parents; tired of telling lies and half-truths -- "cover stories like a CIA spy," he says with his distinctive cackle -- to conceal that he's gay. He was also tired of ... being tired. For most of his life, he's had trouble sleeping, which he attributes to struggles with his sexuality."

What has the response been? 

Sports Illustrated timed the breaking of this story with surgical precision. Everything was kept top-secret until midday today. Around lunchtime, when web activity would be at its peak at SI.com – and Collins would be awake in Los Angeles to take calls – is when SI strategized to take the story live on their website. The actual Sports Illustrated issue with "The Gay Athlete" cover story won't hit newstands until May 6th.

Within hours of this news breaking, President Obama had called Collins to 'congratulate him for his courage.' And Michelle Obama had tweeted: "So proud of you, Jason Collins! This is a huge step forward for our country. We've got your back!"  

Our country has come a long way since I struggled with coming out in the 1980s during the Reagan era. I am so incredibly grateful that this generation of young LGBT teens are getting a loud and resounding confirmation from the Commander in Chief – and the First Lady of the United States – that it's OK to be who you are and to love anybody you want to love.

Martina Navratilova, 18-time Grand Slam Champion came out in 1981 and contributed a poignant piece to the upcoming issue of Sports Illustrated. Here is an excerpt of what Navratilova said: 

Now that Jason Collins has come out, he is the proverbial "game-changer." One of the last bastions of homophobia has been challenged. How many LGBT kids, once closeted, are now more likely to pursue a team sport and won't be scared away by a straight culture?

Collins has led the way to freedom. Yes, freedom -- because that closet is completely and utterly suffocating. It's only when you come out that you can breathe properly. It's only when you come out that you can be exactly who you are. Collins' action will save lives. This is no exaggeration: Fully one third of suicides among teenagers occur because of their sexuality. Collins will truly affect lives, too. Millions of kids will see that it is OK to be gay. No need for shame, no need for embarrassment, no need for hiding.

Now that Collins has led this watershed moment, I think -- and hope -- there will be an avalanche. Come out, come out wherever and whoever you are. It is beautiful out here and I guarantee you this: You will never, ever want to go back. You will only wonder why it took so long.

Conclusion: The repercussions of this are going to be incredible. 

Yesterday I posted a blog titled Expect Nothing. Live Frugally On Surprise in which I talk about visiting Beacon High School in Watertown, Massachusetts recently as part of a "Week of Courage." What a difference a day makes. Jason Collins' advancement of tolerance towards fellow man can be something positive that came out of the Boston Marathon tragedy and help to move our society forward.

Jason Collins tweeted tonight via @jasoncollins34: "All the support I have received today is truly inspirational. I knew that I was choosing the road less traveled but I'm not walking it alone. Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me thru email, texts, calls, tweets, letters, and every other form of communication."

Thank YOU, Jason Collins!

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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