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Jason Collins, other athletes celebrate WorldPride, but they know there’s more to do

Pride nights and athlete visibility are just the beginning as sports leagues aim for inclusivity in LGBTQ community

NEW YORK — The WorldPride celebration has come to an end, but for NBA Cares ambassador Jason Collins, supporting LGBTQ players, coaches and fans is year-round.

This is the fourth consecutive year that Collins, a former NBA player, has appeared on the NBA’s Pride float in New York City. Last week, he stood with NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum, retired NBA and WNBA legends such as Tim Hardaway and Chamique Holdsclaw, and others on the NBA’s Pride float. Three years ago, the NBA was the first professional sports league to march in the NYC Pride parade, but since then, the NHL, MLB, MLS and NFL have followed suit.

Besides athletes and personnel from those leagues, an estimated 4 million people came to New York City on Sunday to participate in the largest Pride celebration in the world. Aptly called WorldPride, the event coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, widely considered the impetus for the modern fight for LGBTQ rights in the United States. The first marches honoring Stonewall and the fight for justice and equality for gay men and women occurred in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1970. Today, Pride marches take place around the world annually from May until the end of June.

The parades represent visible support that matters to Collins. The NBA’s participation in Pride is part of a strategy to be more inclusive of LGBTQ players, fans and personnel and to show allyship. As an NBA Cares ambassador, Collins is part of the league’s global social responsibility program, which aims to address social issues around education, youth and family development, and health in communities around the world.

“I work to impact social change through sport,” Collins said of his role, which spans beyond advocating for LGBTQ inclusion. It involves representing the league to media and corporate partners, as well as speaking directly with players, coaches, owners and fans.

Besides representing the league at Pride, he’s been busy connecting with LGBTQ athletes in other professional leagues to show and build a network of support. Festivities began earlier in the week when Collins participated in a public conversation with Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy, hosted by Airbnb. The compact audience included Billy Bean, Major League Baseball’s vice president and special assistant to the commissioner. Collins and Kenworthy discussed their experiences as LGBTQ athletes, who supported them and what work still needs to be done.

“My dream is to see every single team in every single sports league, at a minimum, have a Pride Night game,” Collins told The Undefeated.

There are different approaches to the event. Some teams provide discounted tickets for LGBTQ community members and organizations for Pride Night games, which are often accompanied by educational activities that highlight issues in the sports and LGBTQ world. Some franchises make donations to local LGBTQ centers.

“My dream is to see every single team in every single sports league, at a minimum, have a Pride Night game.” — Jason Collins

The Boston Celtics, one of Collins’ former teams, hosted its first Pride Night in January. The Los Angeles Lakers held their inaugural one in October 2018. Collins said the Sacramento Kings made donations to a local LGBTQ center and the Chicago Bulls partnered with the Center on Halsted, a nonprofit that works to secure the health and well-being of LGBTQ individuals in Chicago.

Collins also praised the WNBA for their Pride activities. “The WNBA has the most amazing Pride Night games of all the sports leagues. They are leading the charge in terms of LGBTQ representation and visible support to the community,” he said.

The WNBA was the first league to embrace LGBTQ fans and implement leaguewide Pride activities in 2014. According to WNBA chief operating officer Christin Hedgpeth, the league continues to support LGBTQ equality and encourages players, fans and employees to share their voices year-round.

Before traveling to New York, Collins participated in a Pride Night panel hosted by the Los Angeles Angels. Other panelists included Julie Shaw, coordinator of youth basketball for the LA Clippers, professional golfer Maya Reddy, transgender boxer Patricio Manuel, retired MLB umpire Dale Scott and Kirk Walker, an assistant coach for UCLA’s softball team.

“It’s good to see the sports leagues are continuing to push for equality and show visible signs,” said Collins. Pride Night games and educational forums demonstrate to Collins that leagues are serious about welcoming and being inclusive of the LGBTQ community at large, besides players, coaches and fans.

Johnson added that Pride nights can be a great first step toward LGBTQ inclusion in sports. She suggested that leagues start promoting their values of respect, diversity and inclusion at the youth level.

Visibility of gay professional female athletes is much higher than for their male counterparts.

“There’s almost an expectation that women athletes are gay. In male sports, it’s the opposite,” said Ashland Johnson, founder of The Inclusion Playbook, a sports justice project that works with sports leaders to transform communities in and through sports. She moderated the discussion between Collins and Kenworthy.

Among the big five U.S. professional sports leagues — the NBA, MLB, NHL, NFL and MLS — Collins could name only one gay male athlete: Collin Martin, a midfielder for Minnesota United FC. Collins said he’s in touch with several closeted NFL athletes who just aren’t ready to come out yet.

“We know that they exist. We have to continue to signal that the support and acceptance will be there,” he said. “We’re all sort of like a family of LGBT athletes who are supporting each other and cheering each other and just trying to make a path for more and more people to step forward.”

Collins said safety is a consideration for anyone who plans to go public about being LGBTQ. When he talks to closeted players, he said he asks how they are doing and encourages them to reach out to people to help them deal with anything they are going through.

“Don’t feel like you have to do this alone,” he said.

If safety is a concern, Johnson said, policies that protect LGBTQ athletes on and off the court are needed.

“There have to be laws and policies in place to support them both on and off the field of play,” she said, such as when the NBA fines players for using derogatory and offensive language such as anti-gay slurs. “Homophobia and discrimination are not just things that can happen on the team. It can actually be more prevalent in the stands from spectators and perpetuated by bad laws.”

When Collins was considering coming out, he said, NBA security and policies around offensive language signaled that he would be safe. He just had to take the first step.

First, he came out to friends and family in 2012, while he was playing for the Celtics. Same-sex marriage, via the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, was being debated in courts and the public sphere, and there was a rumor that four NFL players were going to come out as gay in a joint announcement.

Collins decided to wait for that statement before he made his own. But that announcement was never made.

“I didn’t want to be first,” Collins recalled during the WorldPride event with Kenworthy. “The first person through the wall [a reference to the film Moneyball] is usually bloodied, and I don’t really want to be bloodied.”

Collins was traded to the Washington Wizards in February 2013. After playing on six teams for nearly 13 years in the league, he said, he was over lying to teams about his personal life.

“I was tired of making up stories about a fake girlfriend who could never come to games because she lived in a different city,” Collins said.

On the cover of the April 29, 2013, issue of Sports Illustrated, Collins officially came out as gay. He was the first and remains the only active NBA player to do so.

An hour before the story published, Collins spoke with then-NBA commissioner David Stern and Silver, his deputy. “They told me if I needed anything, just reach out.” To his surprise, Collins learned the NBA had a relationship with GLSEN, an organization that supports LGBTQ students in grades K-12 to help them learn and grow in school environments free from bullying and harassment.

The support he received from teammates such as Kevin Garnett and public officials such as President Barack Obama was also unexpected. He credits pioneering LGBTQathletes such as tennis greats Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova for paving the way for him to come out and keep his endorsements.

During his panel discussion last week, Collins and Kenworthy acknowledged support for trans athletes as the next focus.

The NCAA has developed guidelines for including transgender athletes, and state high school athletic associations are increasingly allowing athletes to play on teams based on gender identity.

“A lot of young athletes, especially trans athletes, are leaving sports because they don’t feel safe,” said Collins. “All of us know what it’s like to walk into a room and feel uneasy, and in that moment we wanted to feel welcome. So if you have an opportunity to feel welcome or to bring them in, please do that. In regards to trans athletes, that’s what we need to do, to make them feel welcome, accepted, so they can go out there and play their sport, just like all of us.”

Eryn Mathewson is the editorial coordinator for the Rhoden Fellows program. She enjoys coaching young journalists, writing and producing podcasts. When she's not working, she's probably running or watching "bad" TV.