“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
With those words that open an essay appearing in the May 6 edition of Sports Illustrated, Jason Collins broke through a barrier that has for too long separated America’s major professional sports leagues from other elements of society. Collins becomes the first openly gay active male player in any of the four major North American professional sports leagues — Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association. Beyond its impact on American sports culture, an openly gay member of a pro sports team should have implications on workplace law as well.
Collins’ announcement is a breakthrough, but it’s not a revelation. Openly gay female professional athletes have competed in sports such as tennis, basketball and golf for decades. And retired male athletes who played for U.S. professional sports teams — notably former San Francisco 49ers running back Dave Kopay in 1975 and former major league outfielder Billy Bean in 1999 — came out after ending their playing careers.
It’s not news that gay athletes have been competing at the highest levels of professional sports for decades, but Collins’ essay pulls that fact out of the shadows and pushes the conversation about sexual orientation equality beyond the political, legal and religious realms into a new arena: sports talk. Just as Jackie Robinson’s success in toppling baseball’s racial barrier in 1947 provided impetus for a broader social movement that eventually resulted in the repeal of Jim Crow laws that discriminated against blacks in the South, we hope Collins’ announcement promotes greater national dialogue and understanding about the repercussions of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
As John Amaechi, a retired NBA player who came out in 2007, told a CBS Sports interviewer after Sports Illustrated posted Collins’ essay, a gay professional athlete could lose his or her job if traded to a team in one of 29 states where, unlike Maine, it’s legal to fire an employee based on sexual orientation or gender identity. That possibility offers additional evidence for why Congress should finally pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which has languished in various forms since 1994.
The latest version of ENDA, with Maine Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud among 158 co-sponsors, was reintroduced in the U.S. House on April 25. Maine Sen. Susan Collins is a sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, which simply adds sexual orientation to race, religion and other basic legal protections, not special rights, to employees of non-religious organizations, including sports teams, that employ more than 15 workers. Sen. Angus King, who as governor in 1997 signed a similar law that was repealed by a people’s veto in 1998, supports ENDA. Maine enacted a similar law in 2005 and has been better for it.
In addition to providing further rationale for passing ENDA, the most heartening development to arise since Jason Collins’ announcement has been the largely nonchalant reaction from most of his peers within the league and the sports world in general. Those who didn’t offer support directly seemed to shrug off Collins’ sexuality as no big deal.
Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who coached Collins for part of the 2012-13 NBA season, exemplified that reaction when he said, “I never gave it a thought, I could care less. … It’s no one’s business what you do. I’ve always felt that way, and I’ve always had a strong belief about that — that it’s your preference, and so what? You can like who you choose to like, and you can love who you choose to love. That’s the way it should be. The thing that should be celebrated is that two people love each other, and that’s a good thing.”