Tennis champion Martina Navratilova, a pro athlete who has been out for many years, penned a piece for Sports Illustrated today on what Jason Collins‘ coming out means for the future of LGBT athletes in sports.
When I came out, in 1981, I didn’t have much public support and I know I lost endorsements. But I never had to worry about losing my job. In tennis, there are no bosses, no general managers and no coaches who can keep players from competing. So I was safe in that regard. For team sports athletes, this is not the case. A homophobic coach at any level — high school, college or pros — could keep a player from playing. Remember Rene Portland, the women’s basketball coach at Penn State? She proudly boasted she would not allow a lesbian on her team. In the past, that kind of homophobia would have had support from the front office. Why come out when — apart from dealing with all the other complications — it could kill your sports career!
But the times changed. Boy, did they ever change.
Navratilova points out that the change in attitude has been helped along by the vocal support of straight, high-profile allies and projects like the You Can Play initiative, which ensures “equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.”
She also notes that the impact of Collins coming out reaches well beyond professional sports:
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.
Read the article in its entirety at SportsIllustrated.com.