You don’t find many like Jason Collins in the modern NBA.
Amidst those kinetic, fast-breaking New Jersey Nets squads led by Jason Kidd, Collins held down the fort as a slow-footed, non-scoring, non-shot-blocking 7’0 power forward who provided immeasurable value with his spatial awareness, screen setting, and defensive acumen.
Not exactly a common archetype in 2022. But despite averaging under five points and five rebounds, Collins was an essential fixture for contending Nets squads — starting nearly 400 games from 2003 to 2007.
Collins is a one-of-one in another area, as well: He remains the only active NBA player to publicly come out as gay.
In May 2013, after wrapping his 11th season, Collins made his most significant contribution to the game of basketball.
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay,” Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated. “I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Collins could have hung up his sneakers after coming out. He was 34 years old and hadn’t been a regular rotation piece for years. But, he wasn’t ready to say goodbye to basketball, and he understood the importance of being an out active player. (John Amaechi, who played in the NBA from 1995 to 2003, became the first retired player to come out in 2007.)
After months of waiting and training, the Nets—coached by Kidd—offered Collins a 10-day deal in February 2014. Collins credited Kidd for giving him a shot and encouraging him to stay in shape as he awaited another shot. In the second quarter of a Feb. 23 contest against the Los Angeles Lakers, Collins checked in and officially became the first openly gay man to play in the NBA. He received a standing ovation from the Staples Center crowd.
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) April 29, 2013
Collins remained with Brooklyn through the playoffs, appearing in 22 games and providing key veteran leadership. He announced his retirement that November.
Nearly a decade later, Collins is an LGBTQI+ activist who works with the league on various initiatives. However, both casual and devout NBA followers probably haven’t seen him around all that much—or witnessed a ton of content related to LGBTQI+ issues at all.
The recent Finals, for instance—which occurred during Pride Month and featured a team from San Francisco whose renowned ex-president is an openly gay Hall of Famer—rendered Pride as much of a non-factor as Andrew Wiggins did Jayson Tatum in Game 6. The NBA’s broadcast partner for the Finals, Disney, has come under fire for its response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The NBA is publicly supportive of gay rights. Adam Silver, executives, and players have participated in Pride Parades. The WNBA has long embraced openly gay members. The league champions itself as a staunchly progressive institution on socio-political fronts. When Collins made his announcement, he was warmly received within league circles.
“I think it went great—as far as my interaction with my teammates, with my opponents, the fans, with the media—I think that it showed that it’s OK,” Collins reflected to NPR.
“I was able to go out there and do my job, help make plays to help my team win, and then when the game was over, my boyfriend would be in the family room just like everyone else’s loved ones are and I didn’t have to hide anything.”
Presently, there are no LGBTQI+ programs listed on NBA.com, including on the NBA Cares page. The league’s “Social Justice Coalition” states its three prongs of focus: voting rights, police reform, and social justice. Various teams have promoted Pride programs, but there is no official league-wide campaign, not counting apparel.
In 2016, the NBA pulled the following year’s All-Star Game out of Charlotte due to North Carolina’s HB2 Bill. The league has not considered removing the 2023 All-Star Game from Salt Lake City, despite Utah’s bill limiting trans athletes from participating in sports.
“We’re seeing a trend of these bills in the country,” Silver said in April. “I find them personally to be very divisive and in many cases a distraction from the issues we all should be really focused on as Americans.” The commissioner said he doesn’t “want to be in a position where we’re chased from state to state around the country.”
In 2017, the NBA partnered with the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce to back LGBTQI+-run businesses. Five years later, the league has lined up preseason contests in the United Arab Emirates, where being gay is punishable by death.
There isn’t a complete dearth of LGBTQI+ activism around the Association. Dallas Mavericks wing Reggie Bullock won the league’s Social Justice Champion award in 2022 partially thanks to his staunch and deeply personal advocacy for trans rights.
Dwyane Wade’s openness about his daughter’s transition is edifying and meaningful, and he’s engaged in initiatives promoting gay rights. The league has celebrated GLAAD Spirit Day and Trans Day of Visibility.
In theory, the Social Justice Coalition encompasses LGBTQI+ issues. “I think that intersectionality is critical to everybody’s success,” said Hudson Taylor, co-founder of Athlete Ally, a charity benefiting LGBTQI+ athletes that receives financial support from the league. “I will say that racial justice, voting rights, those are also LGBTQI+ related issues. One is not mutually exclusive to the other, but certainly, the movement at large would want to see explicit goals and objectives working towards the advancement of LGBTQI+ rights, protections, and partnerships.”
James Cadogan, the executive director for the coalition, said the league’s LGBTQI+ support hasn’t “gone anywhere — it’s just that the work on racial justice, as seen through criminal justice, voting rights, and policing reform, has been sharpened and crystallized into our coalition.”
“We will do whatever we think we can do to help change the outcomes legislatively, and make sure that the greatest number of people are protected,” Cadogan added. “And in this case, we have a very different legislative and political climate than we did in 2017 in Charlotte.
In Utah, you’ve got the veto-proof majority that overturned the governor’s veto—the same thing that you have in Indiana (site of the 2024 NBA All-Star Game), with the bill that’s come up. And so ultimately, it’s about bringing to bear our other tools.”
The effectiveness (and genuine dedication) of corporate activism can be hard to pinpoint. But an active player coming out makes an unequivocal, outsized impact—especially for young people—and reflects better on an institution’s inclusiveness than any hashtag or initiative.
Today, Collins is a community ambassador for NBA Cares and an ambassador for Athlete Ally. He’s backed letters supporting transgender youth and advocated for LGTBI+ rights on the steps of the Supreme Court.
For the past eight years, he and Taylor have conducted trainings on LGBTQI+ allyship and inclusion at the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program. Among other topics, they address the harms of homophobic language and the importance of fostering friendly environments.
“I still think there is a ways to go with respect to the male professional sports leagues,” Collins told Reuters in 2019. “In the meantime, it’s incumbent on all of us to continue to create an environment of inclusion and acceptance.”
Beyond Pride nights, the league hosts staff training sessions, education panels, and events.
“I am a little surprised that … since I’ve retired, that I haven’t seen any other NBA players come out publicly,” Collins added. “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.”
This development—or lack thereof—stretches beyond professional basketball. In 2021, Nashville Predators prospect Luke Prokop came out, though he has not debuted in NHL. Not long after former Las Vegas Raiders defensive end, Carl Nassib came out in 2021, his jersey hit the top of the charts. He was released in March and has yet to be picked up. Overall, there remain only a small handful of active and out male professional athletes in the United States.
“Everyone lives with fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of change,” said Collins. “If you are a good teammate, 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.”
That understandable hesitancy may be tied to workplace culture as much as institutional advocacy. According to research by behavioral scientist Erik Denison, homophobia remains far too prevalent in boys’ sports. When an impressionable young athlete hears a coach or teammate speak derogatorily, Denison argues, it normalizes antiquated attitudes and stereotypes.
“It needs to start with the coaches, in particular, challenging language and, most importantly, not using that language or behavior themselves,” Denison told CNN. “We often find that male coaches continue to use homophobic language and teach conformity to this tough masculine athlete identity that doesn’t really exist.”
Taylor is supportive of the league’s broader efforts to support the cause. But he believes more can be done internally.
“The NBA has consistently invested in ongoing LGBTQI+ trainings for its players, which is a critical part of building an inclusive sport culture,” Taylor told Music Movies & Hoops.
“That being said, men’s sports as a whole have much work to do to address the ways ‘locker room talk’ perpetuates team cultures where LGBTQI+ athletes, fans, and coaches feel unsafe and unwelcome. I also think that while many NBA players are speaking up and out about LGBTQI+ equality—namely Jason, Reggie Bullock, and icons like Kareem Abdul Jabbar—we need to see more using their influential global platforms to educate their teammates and fans, and inspire them to take action in their own lives to support the LGBTQI+ community.”
Just two months ago, a fan uncovered 78 homophobic tweets by 40 players, including Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Patrick Beverley, and C.J. McCollum—now head of the Players Association. In the past, the NBA has levied harsh fines for uses of gay slurs, including Durant—who praised the NBA’s participation in the Pride Parade—just last year.
“The NBA has had a clear and consistent policy for responding to homophobic and transphobic behavior from players,” Taylor added. “While we can’t control what players will say and do, we can control how we respond to it. Consistently, the NBA has responded in a way that supports the LGBTQI+ community.”
Collins has spoken with closeted gay athletes across sports, including the NBA. He’s hoping more active players soon feel comfortable expressing their truth.
“I would love to see an athlete live their life in an authentic way, not feel that they have to hide, not feel that they have to be afraid, or live with shame—all the other things that go with being a closeted athlete,” Collins told Yahoo in 2020. “No human being should have to walk that path. But there is that fear of stepping forward.”
“I hope that they can look at my story, that they can look at Robbie Rogers’ story … Sue Bird … Diana Taurasi … whichever story is out there that can inspire you to live your authentic life, I hope that they see that, and know that they can have that, and attain that as well.”
Amaechi is now a psychologist and consultant who has also spoken with closeted gay NBA players. In 2020, he told SportsNet that homophobia remains a problem within locker rooms, though he’s “convinced it’s better than it was.” FWIW, the Harvard Law & Policy Review agreed.
Yet, players are still fearful that coming out could jeopardize their careers.
“It’s very clear the environment is less worrying from a player-to-player perspective, and more worrying in terms of certain coaches and certain management,” Amaechi opined. “If one person wants your talent, they can cap what they pay you. If 10 people want your talent, then there’s a bidding war that happens and you can get paid more, potentially. It impacts your bottom line.”
Hiding an elemental aspect of one’s personality can be detrimental to performance. In an elite talent pool such as professional sports, a slight dip in play can be the difference between a long-term contract and the fringes of employment.
“I think there’s a lot of great evidence out there that when you try to protect some part of you psychologically, whether it be your sexuality or something else, you’ve now spent a portion of your energy on that protection,” says Amaechi. “I know I would’ve been better had I not had to use that energy to protect my identity.”
“The desire to be a part of something bigger than yourself, the uncertainty of how you would be accepted and the short time with an incredibly high ceiling of opportunity to realize your dreams and take care of yourself weigh into the decision now more than ever,” expressed Billy Bean, a former pro baseball player and lead ambassador for the MLB’s LGBTQI+ programs.
After all — any player who isn’t a lauded first-round draft pick isn’t guaranteed anything.
“The average career of an NBA player is 3.5 years,” Taylor told MMH. “As long as there is any perception that coming out will impact the likelihood of that career length, LGBTQI+ athletes aren’t going to be incentivized to be their authentic self. The way this changes is by more athletes and coaches speaking out as allies. We have to do more to eliminate the actual or perceived risk of NBA players coming out.”
There’s another key difference between Collins’ era and the contemporary NBA. Collins came out privately a year before he told the world, and his privacy was respected by his peers, which made him more comfortable about publicizing his sexuality. He isn’t sure that would happen today.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult in the day and age that we live in, where everybody has a cell phone, information can spread very, very quickly,” Collins says. “I would find that extremely unlikely for professional athletes.”
If another player (or players) follows in Collins’ footsteps, the NBA, as an enterprise—and the vast majority of its members—would surely and loudly voice its support. Frankly, whether a player feels comfortable doing so probably won’t have much to do with the state of the league’s LGBTQI+ activism.
But, for all Collins and his allies’ efforts to improve the culture of acceptance within league circles, there are clearly still major strides that can be made.
“Pro basketball is family,” Collins wrote at the end of his SI article. “And pretty much every family I know has a brother, sister, or cousin who’s gay. In the brotherhood of the NBA, I just happen to be the one who’s out.”
Unfortunately, those words are just as applicable in 2022 as they were nine years ago.