If free agent Jason Collins, right, signs with another NBA team, it would prove players can coexist with an openly gay teammate and fans can cheer for one.


I smiled when I read this line in Jason Collins' first-person Sports Illustrated account.

"I'm glad I'm coming out in 2013," he said, "rather than 2003."

Ten years ago, I wrote a master's thesis project for the San Diego Union-Tribune about a fact that Collins, with his announcement that should hit your mailbox today, has since made irrelevant: In the history of major American professional team sports, there had never been an active, openly gay male athlete.

I wrote that Mike Piazza once had to hold a press conference to say he wasn't gay.

And that, in the history of the Big Four American team sports, only seven retired players have come out as gay.

Regardless of your feelings about homosexuality, you'd have to agree that those numbers are inconceivably low.

Sports Illustrated's headline touting Collins as "The Gay Athlete" is wrong.

He's one of hundreds, maybe thousands, in the history of big-time American team sports. To argue that fact is to be willfully ignorant of percentages (which means you probably enjoyed Mark Lyons' assist-to-turnover ratio).

Collins' story is meaningful because he's the first to go public.

It will become even more important when he's not the only one.

Don't care about a player's sexual preference? Fantastic. But for generations, the fear of backlash - from teammates, the media and the public - has kept players in the closet.

Ten years ago, I interviewed three retired pro athletes who'd since come out: running back Dave Kopay, nose tackle Esera Tuaolo and baseball player Billy Bean.

They gave me a wide spectrum of reasons they stayed closeted until retirement: They were afraid they'd get cut (especially in the NFL, without guaranteed contracts) or lose sponsorship money.

In a team dynamic that discourages individuality, they could be harassed, shunned or, as former NFL wideout Sterling Sharpe once intimated, injured by their own teammates during practice.

Fans could turn on them.

They'd end up without a job and cast out from the sports world, in many cases the only community they've ever known.

Sports is our last bastion of machismo, and our culture has a specific definition of what it considers masculine. Inserting sexuality into that mix, the reasoning went, would be volatile.

It was the last taboo in sports.

I was afraid, 10 years ago, that the first gay player would be outed, against his will, by a tabloid or website. (And TMZ didn't even exist then!)

I hoped the first athlete would do so of his own volition. I figured he'd have enough money to survive any potential financial backlash, would have played in multiple locker rooms and be college-educated.

Collins hits all three: The Stanford grad has made $32million for six teams over 12 years in the NBA.

He's well-liked around the league, which might explain why Monday's announcement was met with little rancor - an accomplishment in a world where ESPN's "First Take" and anonymous tweets compete to raise our blood pressure.

But it's also a sign of the times. Our view of homosexuality in culture has changed, even in the last decade.

"Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" debuted 10 years ago. Now, gay actors play straight male leads on "The Big Bang Theory" and "How I Met Your Mother," and read the news on "Anderson Cooper 360," and no one bats an eye.

In 2003, no state in America had legalized gay marriage. This week, Rhode Island figures to be the 10th.

Tuesday, President Obama said he was "proud" of Collins, and Bill Clinton, whose daughter went to Stanford with Collins, called it an "important moment."

Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and others showed support.

Could you imagine that happening 30 years ago? Or even 10?

I hope Collins, most recently of the Washington Wizards, signs a free agent contract to play next year.

It would make his announcement more meaningful and show players they can coexist with an openly gay teammate.

And fans, that they can cheer for one.

Collins is happy he came out in 2013 and not 2003.

Because of him, maybe a player's sexuality won't be an issue in 2023.

We can hope.

Contact reporter Patrick Finley at pfinley@azstarnet.com or 573-4658. On Twitter @PatrickFinley