Katie Linder —
In a world where society is making solid progress for equality of all people, there is still a certain stigma associated with those whose identities go against the social norm.
One of the most common differences among people that seems to evoke a great amount of controversy is sexual orientation. Even today, when more people than ever before are open about their sexual orientation, those who identify themselves as being gay find that, depending on the situation, their opportunities can be limited as opposed to those who identify themselves as being straight.
Perhaps one of the greatest opportunities that a person can be granted in life is the opportunity to play for a professional sports team. A very small percentage of the population has the skills to play professional sports and, out of those, an even smaller amount are granted the opportunity to actually play professional sports.
Until February 23, 2014, no openly gay athlete had played for any of the four major professional sports leagues in North America, which consist of Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Hockey League (NHL).
Jason Collins, who became a free agent at the end of the 2012-2013 season of the NBA revealed his sexuality to Sports Illustrated in April of 2013. When he signed a contract with the Brooklyn Nets on February 23, 2014, he became the first openly gay professional athlete in the United States.
Collins’s coming out of the closet signifies a new era in professional sports. Gay athletes around the world, who might have been afraid of what hardships could face them if they end up becoming professional athletes, will now have a role model in Collins. By having someone to act as a role model and an inspiration, it is likely that more gay athletes will be inspired to follow in Collins’s footsteps, which could lead to an influx of gay athletes in professional sports.
Not only will gay athletes benefit from Collins’s coming out, but professional sports as a whole will benefit. With the stigma against gay athletes lessening, there are an endless amount of possibilities surrounding the potential of athletes that follow in Collins’s footsteps.
Much like Jackie Robinson who revolutionized professional sports by being the first African American professional athlete, Collins will revolutionize professional sports by being the first openly gay professional athlete. Robinson opened the door for African American athletes who have been elected to their respective halls of fame.
Hopefully, many years in the future, it will be possible to identify Collins as the person who opened the door for openly gay athletes to achieve the immortality that straight athletes have been achieving for decades.
Now the responsibility rests with the gay athletes who can identify with Collins and who are willing to work towards a goal. Even though Collins took a crucial step in the path to equality by being the first openly gay professional athlete in North America, the road for those who follow him will still be difficult. Daunting as it may seem to have the odds stacked against them, gay athletes will hopefully follow Collins into professional sports.
A critical barrier in society has been broken. Now the task will be ensuring that the barrier remains open.
* Photo of sportsillustrated.cnn.com