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Jason Collins tells students to continue to push on social and LGBT issues

He said coming out in 2013 made his life much happier

Jason Collins, the former NBA player who made history in 2013 as “the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport,” as he said in a Sports Illustrated cover story, has continued to speak out. “I try to have as many conversations as I can with people to change our society and have a positive impact on someone’s life,” he said.

At Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black university in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Tuesday, Collins’ main message to students was clear: “I remember listening to stories from my grandmother who grew up in the segregated South; she grew up in upstate Louisiana. Her telling me how hard it was for her to first vote … hearing those stories and the sacrifices of the people who have come before me, this is important because the people in power fought so hard for us not to have it, whether you’re a woman or a minority, they didn’t want us to have this. So that tells you right there how important it is to vote.”

North Carolina is a state divided on House Bill 2, passed in the legislature in reaction to a Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance. Now being argued in the courts, it required that in government buildings transgender people must use the restroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate, and took away the power of North Carolina cities to enact nondiscrimination rules.

On Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day, and the day before he and his partner would celebrate their three-year anniversary, Collins, 37, said he was proud of the stand the NBA took under the leadership of commissioner Adam Silver in opposition to the bill, moving its 2017 NBA All-Star Game from Charlotte. It set an example for the NCAA and the ACC, which moved championship games out of the state.

“It’s really important to see the sports community and the business community come forward and speak out on a discriminatory law like HB2,” Collins said. “As a member of the LGBT community, I would feel uncomfortable participating in a sporting event here. The easiest and simplest thing would be to repeal it.”

Collins approves of athletes’ actions on social issues, such as San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem to protest bias and inequity, and NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James making a public statement at The ESPYS. “There’s more dialogue and understanding that needs to take place on both sides,” he said.

Though no longer a player, Collins continues to work with the NBA as an ambassador with NBA Cares, which addresses social issues and partners with everyone from Uncle Sam to corporate America to Boys & Girls Clubs, he explained. “We have retired athletes such as myself, such as Dikembe Mutombo and Bob Lanier, who go out and represent the league.

“Recently I was in Angola, Africa, speaking with the LGBT community there, visiting orphanages, teaching basketball to the youth and telling then how basketball played a role in my life and it can play a role in their lives. Someone who’s growing up in Angola can get a free education in the States and come back and be a leader.”

“Sports can transcend so many different parts of our society – to have a complete stranger come up to me and say, ‘Jason, I’m proud of you,’ and my story has helped their lives,” Collins said. “I have an opportunity to thank the Billie Jean Kings and Martina Navratilovas of the world. It’s an interesting dynamic in our society. Women in sports have been doing this for decades — men in sports, we’re a little late to the party, but we’re trying.”

Collins is also one of many athletes to weigh in on what has been labeled private “locker room talk.” While he acknowledged rough language that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump alluded to, in Collins’ opinion, “I’ve been in many different locker rooms the majority of my life and no one has ever said something along those lines — no one. Even someone who said homophobic language, sexist language, all of us who have common sense would look at that individual like he’s a fool.”

Collins got to know Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, when daughter Chelsea was a fellow Stanford University student, and has kept up the friendship. The family gave him advice about how to handle being the center of a media storm.

“My life is exponentially better since coming out,” said Collins, recalling 2013 and all that came after. Now, he said, some of his most meaningful conversations are private ones, with athletes “who are in the closet, and they’re on their path. I never tell them what they should or shouldn’t do. I just tell them that their life will be so much better.”

Mary C. Curtis, columnist for Roll Call and NBCBLK and contributor to NPR, has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. She is a child of West Baltimore, based in Charlotte, N.C., and can sing the entire score of “Hamilton.”