Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Jason Collins Comes Out - Gay Rights In Sport Is Real Issue

In the May 6, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated NBA center Jason Collins made the following statement:

"I'm a 34-year old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay." (credit Kwaku Alston/SI)
The North American sports media, and indeed the world's sports media have swarmed to this story discussing the implications as the first gay sports athlete playing in one of the four major North American sports to 'come out' while still an active player.

Former US President Bill Clinton and current President Barack Obama were quick to describe Collins' declaration as a vital step for American sports. Collins has been discussed as an ambassador and a leader. He has played in the NBA for 12 seasons and for six different teams most recently the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards in 2012-13.

32 years ago top tennis player Martina Navratilova came out as gay. She lost millions of dollars worth of sponsorship in the immediate aftermath, but she also emerged as an important activist and went on to dominate women's tennis. Some progress has clearly been made with Collins' sponsor, Nike, officially declaring their support for the NBA player.

The UK has its own ambassadors as combatants against homophobia in sports. There have been no openly gay football players apart from Justin Fashanu, who passed away in 1998. Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas and cricketer Steve Davies both 'came out' in 2011, but despite an apparently more accepting culture, there have still been extremely few professional athletes coming out as homosexual in the UK or anywhere else in the world.

However, there should be no doubt about what the real story line is with regards to Collins and his announcement. The story is that despite the first LGBT pride march (now held annually all around the world) being all the way back in 1969 and advances being made in culture generally relating to sexuality rights. As is all too often the case; sports are lagging behind.

San Francisco Gay Pride March 2008

Team sports in particular have struggled to shake the homophobia that is frequently rampant within them. That culture is enforced brutally at just about every level. It still takes tremendous bravery, strength and character to be openly gay and a professional sports athlete. That is a horrendous problem and one that needs to be addressed.

It is also extremely notable that certain sports still haven't had any openly gay athletes. American Football and Football are still without any clear ambassadors in terms of LGBT rights and both still hold cultures that are undoubtedly homophobic.

The US and UK both claim to be places of tolerance and understanding where citizens are allowed and encouraged to live their lives in whatever way they like, including in terms of their sexuality.

It is 2013, but the sports world has a long way to travel. Collins is a brave and strong character and deserves the well wishes. Hopefully he feels that a burden has been lifted off of his shoulders. How many more sports men and women are living with that burden today? How many more are discriminated against, at least indirectly, in their profession just because of their sexual preference?

That thought is the worst thought and what does it really say about today's society and professional sport? How slow are LGBT rights moving? It's time for the sports world to change.

This article was written by Sebastian Egerton-Read - follow me on twitter @SebEread

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