When you’re someone Big (capital B) and have been hiding something essential about yourself from whomever it is that made you Big, deciding to reveal that essential something is no small deal.
This week, NBA player Jason Collins was the first active player of a big American sport to come of the closet and share with the world that he’s gay. Speculation has been swirling for about a year that guys playing in big league basketball, baseball, hockey and football might come out. Straight players like the NFL’s Brendan Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe have talked about their desire to help orchestrate a coming out process so the guys who made the first move would feel supported.
Big names in the realm of entertainment, politics and even religious life have done it, so it seemed like just a matter of time that big league sports would be next. Here’s the thing: whether you’re a Hollywood celebrity or a top-level GOP operative or a professional athlete playing in the big leagues on national television, if you’re gay, there’s a well-worn script for coming out of the closet in just the right way.
First, there’s the laying of groundwork. In the case of Collins, friendlies like Ayanbadejo and Kluwe started a national conversation a year or more in advance, aided by well-organized groups like the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group in Washington, DC, that dispensed with all the unpleasant reactions and unkind statements. All the supporters got to make their case and all the opponents got to make theirs. The court of public opinion had its chance to make a ruling.
It came down on the side of guys like Collins.
Second, you carefully picked your moment. You find a time in the calendar that enables you to claim the spotlight without deflecting attention from those you care about – such as your employer, your community or your family. This can be tough for professional athletes because there’s always something going on. But Collins calibrated his announcement perfectly. He’s on his way out from his current team and shopping for a new one as a free agent. His colleagues have wished him nothing but the best
Third, you choose your storyteller. In his case, Collins appropriately chose Sports Illustrated to tell his own story. He’s a Stanford grad and his education has paid dividends. He’s intelligent and thoughtful and a terrific writer. He wrote honestly and movingly about his decision and what he hope it will mean moving forward:
“No one wants to live in fear. I've always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don't sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I've endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back.”
He might have chosen Oprah, or Bryant Gumble or even the Today Show – all have been effective ways to come clean for others – but speaking in his own voice in the definitive sports chronicle was exactly the right decision.
Finally, you seed and hope for positive responses and support from people who love and care for you. In Collins’s instance, his former Stanford classmate Chelsea Clinton and her father (that would be President Bill Clinton) issued statements in support of Collins minutes after the Sports Illustrated blog post was published. Basketball luminaries such as Kobe Bryant sent tweets of support across Twitter. And his own twin brother, who played ten seasons in the NBA himself, sent messages of love and support.
Jason Collins executed his coming brilliantly. It will make a huge difference to people young and old who look for role models like him to inform their own process of self-realization. It will change professional sports in America.
Most importantly, however, it means he’s free. And that he’ll finally be able to sleep peacefully.
FIVE THôT columnist DEREK GORDON is a marketing and sales exec with more than 20 years success in integrated marketing and sales strategy and management. He is the Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Pathbrite.
Basketball image courtesy of Shutterstock