(Reuters) - Jason Collins made history in 2013 when he became the first openly gay athlete in one of the four major North American professional sports leagues and the former NBA player wishes more men would follow the trail he helped blaze.
A growing number of high-profile Olympic athletes have come out in recent years but Collins said that while the NBA is ready for more openly gay players the tide has simply not turned when it comes to male professional team sports in the United States.
“I still think there is a ways to go with respect to the male professional sports leagues,” Collins, who now serves as the NBA Cares Ambassador, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“In the meantime, it’s incumbent on all of us to continue to create an environment of inclusion and acceptance.”
After making the courageous decision in May 2013 to come out late in his 13-season National Basketball Association career, Collins signed with Brooklyn the following February and played 22 games in a backup role before retiring later that year.
Many pundits felt Collins’ decision would trigger other athletes from the so-called ‘big four’ leagues -- NBA, National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Hockey League (NHL) -- to do the same but the wait goes on.
Collin Martin, of Major League Soccer’s Minnesota United, came out last June and is the only openly gay male athlete currently playing in a major professional U.S. sports league.
Former MLS player Robbie Rogers came out on the day he first retired in February 2013 but joined the LA Galaxy three months later to become the first openly gay male to compete in a major North American professional sport.
“Everyone lives with fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of change,” said Collins.
“And I try to tell those players that you can look at my example, or you can look at Robbie Rogers in Major League Soccer; after coming out and playing he was able to win a championship with his team.
“If you are a good team mate, they will support you and accept you for who you are ... but it’s up to each individual person. I don’t tell someone what they should and shouldn’t do.”
‘A LITTLE SURPRISED’
Collins participates in a rookie transition program that helps prepare incoming NBA players and says more hands are raised each year during his talk on inclusion when he asks the group how many know somebody in the LGBT population.
For Collins, those hands are a comforting sign as he feels people are more accepting to others coming out when they already know someone from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Yet he also wonders why that has not translated to another NBA player announcing he is gay.
“So I am a little surprised that ... since I’ve retired, that I haven’t seen any other NBA players come out publicly,” said Collins.
“I do know that they exist, that they are there. But some people just, for whatever reason, choose to live their life in private and that’s something that I understand.”
Collins, who joined The Female Quotient for its ‘Equality Lounge’ at this month’s NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte two weeks ago to speak on a panel about achieving belonging in business, applauds how the NBA has embraced gay rights.
The NBA in 2016 became the first of the ‘big four’ to have a float in New York City’s annual gay pride parade and many teams host ‘pride nights’ to celebrate inclusion by hosting members and supporters from the LGBT community.
But still there is a long way to go considering that many top players from the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) have come out as gay, pronouncements that Collins said are always met with the same “great, now go win some games” reaction.
“That’s my hope for how it’s going to be eventually with male leagues,” said Collins. “But it’s going to take more of those (male) athletes to come out while they are active.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Ian Chadband
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