Jason Collins Isn’t the Gay Jackie Robinson

But he still deserves credit for having the balls to come out in the NBA.

He’s here. He’s queer. He’s seven feet tall.

You got a problem with that?

Jason Collins, who until yesterday was a little-known journeyman in the NBA, has suddenly become the most famous jock in the world. More precisely, the most famous gay jock.

Collins, currently with the Washington Wizards, announces in the cover story of Sports Illustrated‘s May 6th issue, that yes, he is a gay American. By doing so, he is the first openly homosexual, active male athlete in a major U.S. pro sport. Ever.

Despite the country’s increasing acceptance of gays, Collins’ move took real, well, balls.

Occasional lip service notwithstanding, pro sports in general—and the NBA in particular—are a bastion of testosterone-driven heterosexism. What makes the NBA unique is that almost 80 percent of the players are black, and black men are notorious homophobes when it comes to one of their own.

That point may be moot, however, given Collins’ current status as a free agent. If he’s not picked up by another team this summer, his NBA career is over. At 34, he’s not exactly a prime pick. Washington was his sixth stop in a rather lackluster 12-year career dominated by his penchant for personal fouls.

Cynics argue that Collins timed his announcement so he can vilify the NBA and become a gay martyr if he doesn’t latch on to another team. Also, with the season over for the Wizards, he doesn’t have to worry about his teammates’ reactions in the locker room.

If Collins does pull the homophobia card, shame on him. But based on his first-person account in SI, I’m choosing to believe that his motives had more to do with his soul than his bank account.

A former Boston Celtic, he plans to march in this year’s Gay Pride parade in Boston with Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III, his roommate at Stanford. The Boston Marathon bombings convinced him that he shouldn’t wait for the “perfect circumstances” to come out.

Also, he wore the uniform number 98 with the Celtics and Wizards this season to commemorate 1998, the year that gay student Matthew Shepard was murdered in a hate crime that galvanized the whole country.

FYI, Collins is one of only two players to have worn 98 in the history of the NBA, according to basketball-reference.com. The only other: Hamed Haddadi of the Phoenix Suns, also this season.

Some are hailing Collins as the gay Jackie Robinson, but the comparison is specious. Robinson was 28 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color line in major league baseball. Blessed with prodigious talent, he was a lock for the Hall of Fame.

Collins is close to the end of his career, if it hasn’t ended already, and he is not a star. Like Robinson, however, he deserves accolades for blasting through the oldest barrier in pro sports—far older than that of color. If Collins does nothing else in his life, he will be forever remembered for that.

Ultimately, the cultural litmus test will be whether Collins’ actions have the power to affect an entire league, as Robinson’s did. Sadly, I think not.

It will take a star of Robinson’s magnitude to produce that kind of tectonic change. Someone so good, so well known, so universally admired that no one would dare comment on his sexual orientation—home-team fans because they want to keep him; competitors’ fans because they want to steal him.

Moreover, that player most likely will have to already be out before he breaks into the bigs. With his sexuality already known, there would be no waves to break. It would just be another entry in his personal stats, like his batting average or ERA.

So thank you, Jason Collins, for bravely opening the door. You may not be the gay Jackie Robinson, but you’ve made it safe for the player who will be.