As far as seals of approval go, a shout-out from the president of the United States during a nationally televised press conference has to be up there with a thumbs-up from Oprah or a pat on the back from Magic Johnson. And since announcing he was gay in a self-penned essay for "Sports Illustrated" magazine, NBA veteran Jason Collins has received all of that plus much more this week.
After going a few rounds with the White House press corps Tuesday, covering immigration, gun-law reform and the question of his political "juice" in Washington, President Obama was practically halfway off the stage before he jogged back to answer a hastily shouted question about Collins' coming out.
"For, I think, a lot of young people out there who are gay or lesbian," the president said, "who are struggling with these issues, to see a role model out there who's unafraid ... This is just one more step in the ongoing recognition that we treat everybody fairly ... We judge people on the basis of their character and their performance, not on their sexuality. I'm very proud of him."
Collins, who began his deeply personal essay with, "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay," has received a steady outpouring of support from fans and colleagues alike, perhaps the sweetest and strangest coming from Lakers forward Metta World Peace.
"Whether it's a free country or not, you should be free to act as you want to do as long as it's not violent. No matter what it is," said Metta. "I came here in a Cookie Monster shirt because I wanted to, and I was going to wear the pants. But I thought you guys were going to judge me ... But I should've wore it. You should be free to do and act how you want to act."
Collins is the first openly gay male athlete who is currently playing for a major American team sport. Recently there have been whispers sparked by former Baltimore Raven and gay-rights supporter Brendon Ayanbadejo that a Super Friends-esque group of NFL players was poised to come out at the same time to bear the brunt of such an explosion. But if the decidedly uplifting aftermath of Collins' announcement is any indication, American sports fans are more concerned with the scoreboard than the bedroom.
Take Brittney Griner. The 22-year-old No. 1 draft pick in the WNBA — a league that's had more than a few out and proud players — is the first openly gay athlete signed to an endorsement deal by Nike. But for Griner there was no virtual ticker tape parade, no cloudburst of celebrity tweets or political head nods.
When asked during an interview with "Sports Illustrated" about the difference in shock value (and column inches) between the sexuality revelations of male and female athletes, Griner shrugged her gingham-clad shoulders.
"I really couldn't give an answer on why that's so different," Griner said. "Being one that's out, it's just being who you are."
She continued, "It really wasn't too difficult; I wouldn't say I was hiding or anything like that. I've always been open about who I am and my sexuality. So it wasn't hard at all. If I can show that I'm out and I'm fine and everything's OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way."
For his part, Collins said that fellow gay athlete Robbie Rogers, a 25-year-old soccer player, phoned him to say, "It feels a little weird to congratulate you for being honest."
More than a decade separates Collins' and Griner's professional basketball careers. When the veteran Collins graduated from high school, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. Just weeks before Griner became the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick, thousands gathered outside the Supreme Court to protest the Defense of Marriage Act.
For Griner, living her truth seems a simple task — as natural as lacing up a pair of sneakers before a big game. The 6-foot-8 soon-to-be star exudes a confidence that Collins, at 34, is just now stepping into after 12 seasons. That their coming-out parties were vastly different isn't just a reflection of the stereotypes surrounding masculinity, sexuality and sports (though that is part of it) but a tectonic shift in cultural norms.
Perhaps in another decade we'll be past not only the novelty but the necessity of "the firsts," but until then, someone has to put that metaphorical number on their back and play the game.