"I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay."
That declaration yesterday by the journeyman NBA big man Jason Collins in Sports Illustrated sent shock waves around the sports world. As you've probably heard by now, Collins is the first player in a major professional American team sport to come out of the closet while pursuing a career in his sport.
But we were a little intrigued by the "black" part of Collins' construction. Even though there are plenty of out African-Americans, there still haven't been terribly many who were celebrities, although that's changing.
We decided to look at some recent coming-out stories to see what they had in common with Jason Collins, and what was different about their stories.
Not long before his anticipated solo debut, Channel Orange, was set to drop last year, the singer/songwriter affiliated with the, uh, temperamental hip-hop collective Odd Future had starting facing questions about his sexuality when he used male pronouns to describe a love interest on several of his songs.
Ocean eventually took to his blog to address the swirling rumors.
"In the last year or 3 I've screamed at my creator, screamed at the clouds in the sky, for some explanation. Mercy maybe. For peace of mind to rain like manna somehow.
"4 summer ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost... Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping. ...
"I don't know what happens now, and that's alrite. I don't have any secrets I need kept anymore... Thanks to my first love, I'm grateful for you. Grateful that even though it wasn't what I hoped for and even though it was never enough, it was... I feel like a free man. If I listen closely... I can hear the sky falling too.
But the sky didn't fall. Ocean's coming out was trumpeted as a seminal moment in hip-hop, and other rappers and hip-hop luminaries publicly expressed their support for him. His nervous performance of "Bad Religion" on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon just days after he published his blog post became one of the most riveting TV moments of the summer. Oh, and Channel Orange was a huge critical success and ended up on many best-of lists at the end of the year.
But Ocean, a singer, is more like hip-hop-adjacent. No rappers of prominence have come out of the closet, although rappers like A$AP Rocky have expressed optimism that there will be people in the hip-hop universe who would welcome whomever chooses to do so.
Even if Jason Collins signs a new contract next year (something the statistician Nate Silver says is a better than 50-50 possibility), he's undoubtedly in the twilight of his NBA career. Ocean, on the other hand, is going to be around for a minute.
Amaechi made news when he came out back in 2007, but it was several years after he'd retired from basketball and was living overseas in England, where he'd grown up. Like Collins, Amaechi earned his living as a serviceable backup center for several different teams. (Neither is the kind of player who would have had jerseys for sale at their team's arenas.)
But unlike Collins — whose twin brother, Jarron, didn't even know he was gay and said that he never got too close to any of his teammates — Amaechi was sorta, kinda out to a few of his teammates on the Utah Jazz, including Greg Ostertag and Andrei Kirilenko, the latter of whom he referred to as "Malinka" in his memoir, Man in the Middle:
"Some time after Christmas of my last Utah season, as the team was sliding out of contention, Malinka instant-messaged an invitation to his New Year's Eve party, explaining he was only inviting his 'favorite' friends. Then he wrote something that brought tears to my eyes: 'Please come, John. You are welcome to bring your partner, if you have one, someone special to you. Who it is makes no difference to me.' I was hosting my own party that night, so I had to decline his sweet invitation. But I was moved. I had Ryan deliver Malinka a $500 bottle of Jean Paul Gaulthier-dressed champagne.
"The whole exchange was a revelation. Malinka's generous overture made the season more bearable. It also showed that in my own paranoia and overwhelming desire for privacy, I'd failed to give some of my teammates the benefit of the doubt. The sense of welcome and belonging, so often denied gay people even by their own families, meant the world to me, especially in the middle of a dreadful season in a strange desert state that in the end provided some of the best days of my life."
Although Amaechi's experience as a semi-out pro was pretty different from Collins' very closeted one — Celtics coach Doc Rivers said that Amaechi's sexuality was already pretty much assumed among his teammates, who didn't care very much — it suggests that if Collins were to return to the league next year, he might be pleasantly surprised by some of the reactions.
Probably the most intriguing contrast to Collins is Brittney Griner: They're on opposite ends of their careers and occupy entirely different places in the basketball ecosystem. Just two weeks ago, the 6'8" center from Baylor, who is probably the most dominant women's college basketball player ever, casually acknowledged that she's gay during a press conference following her selection as the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. But her revelation was greeted with relative indifference.
So why the collective shrug from the sports world? As Patrick Burke of the sports advocacy group You Can Play told The New York Times, many people tend to assume that a preponderance of female athletes are gay. "In sports right now, there are two different stereotypes — that there are no gay male athletes, and every female athlete is a lesbian," he said. "We've had tremendous success in getting straight male players to speak to the issue; we're having a tougher time finding straight female athletes speaking on this issue because they've spent their entire careers fighting the perception that they're a lesbian."
But Griner, who is just 22, is likely to be one of the WNBA's most recognizable players for a minute — she was already well known for routinely dunking in games and is one of those athletes who could actually change how the game is played and officiated — so it'll be worth watching just how she is marketed and packaged by the league and their sponsors. She's already inked an endorsement deal with Nike.
Collins' game isn't nearly as dynamic as Griner's; he's never been one of those players with a substantial side-hustle as a product pitchman. But what's different is that his next act (in the NBA or otherwise) will be much higher profile because he's come out, and it could have all kinds of consequences for the way the league thinks about its employees and its fan base. Where Griner's coming out was greeted with silence, Collins' impact will be almost inverse to his on-court utility. His coming out may be seismic in ways we can't really game out yet.