"I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay."
Those were the words from pro basketball player Jason Collins that managed to rock the sports world yesterday along with sending some pretty powerful tremors into American society at the same time, as well.
By becoming the first active male professional athlete for one of the major team sports in the U.S. to announce his homosexual sexual orientation, Collins became a pioneer for some and a pariah for others.
His comments were made in a first-person article posted on Sports Illustrated website. Make no mistake, it was taken as a pretty big deal by most media, sports journalists and hard news reporters alike. There were calls of support from President Obama and a legion of big name superstars in the world of sports and politics. Collins became an immediate media star with his decision to "out" himself on such a grand stage.
In an interview, Collins said his main rationale for making his announcement was that after the Boston Marathon bombings, he realized life was too short to wait any longer to live a truthful life.
The near unanimous positive support for Collins in the wake of his historic admission – some used Jackie Robinson breaking the color line barrier in baseball as a comparison – was encouraging for those Americans with gay friends or relatives who probably didn't think the story should have been that big a deal to begin with.
After all, professional male athletes from baseball, football and basketball have spoken about their homosexuality in the past. But those truth-tellers were all either retired from the game or on the way out.
It's important to note that in the wake of all the congratulations for the new age of tolerance being shown Collins by his teammates, fellow athletes and the NBA, he doesn't have a job at the present time. His last stint was with the NBA's Washington Wizards but he's currently a free agent.
At 34 years old and seven feet tall, he should garner some interest in spite of the fact he's not a star player and his meager game averages of points and rebounds during his career aren't impressive. For the more cynical types, there's already been some speculation in social media that Collins decided to announce he was gay in a bid to force some teams to hire him as a free agent or risk a sexual orientation lawsuit.
Of course, most people just want to believe Collins decided to be totally truthful about his life in an attempt to help other athletes and younger people in general struggling with the same situation realize that being gay is nothing shameful.
In that scenario, he's a role model regardless of his motivations.
My take is that it's interesting to see how so many have embraced this news story as a sign of greater tolerance toward gays during a time when gay marriage remains a political hot button even as most polls show a majority of Americans don't see homosexuality as a threat to their way of life.
It's hard to imagine those same kind of attitudes toward gays as recently as five years ago; that's a real sign of tangible change.
The main folks who seemed upset this week after the gay NBA player came out appeared limited to those people who continue to see the gay lifestyle as dangerous and even destructive. That number includes a significant group of religious citizens, particularly in the African-American community.
As an African-American male raised as a Baptist, I know some of my family and friends would probably have the same reaction as ESPN NBA reporter Chris Broussard, who said on national TV that he felt Collins was a sinner for being homosexual and therefore he could not agree with his lifestyle choice for religious reasons.
Many black church-going Americans share that same view of the homosexual "lifestyle," which is why I think Collins included his race in his opening statement.
According to reports, Collins' own twin brother never suspected he was gay. He was also engaged to a woman for several years before breaking it off; the intended bride-to-be told reporters this week she had no clue he was gay.
That's an indication of the "down low" trend among some black men who end up living a "straight" live for years despite their true nature. It's a big concern for some black women who don't want to be exposed to AIDS but it's also a by-product of the extreme homophobia in some parts of the black community that encourages denial.
I know a gay African-American man in Milwaukee who works for a local LBGT organization who has been a married father with three children. More people are living secret lives than some of us think.
Hopefully, Collins' decision to announce his sexual orientation wasn't meant for publicity or personal gain but to free himself and lead a path for others to follow.
In 2013, it shouldn't be that big a deal that the first active gay athlete in team sports has decided to speak out, but apparently it is. The real proof of whether there's a new age of tolerance will come if Collins can continue a career in the NBA after his announcement or have to stand on the sidelines and remain simply a symbol.
If that's the case, he really won't have proven anything and we'll just have to wait until the next one.
Eugene Kane is veteran Milwaukee journalist and nationally award winning columnist.
Kane writes about a variety of important issues in Milwaukee and society that impact residents of all backgrounds.