In Robinson's story, professional sports stood as a beacon of hope and progress.
Unfortunately, for the millions of Americans who make up the LGBT community, sports has been anything but a beacon of hope and progress. Instead, the sports world has been a place where the progress of society at large is quashed by the fear of prejudice, resentment or bitterness that has prevented an untold number of athletes from stepping out of the closet and onto the field of play.
That's why so many of us applaud Jason Collins, veteran NBA center, for becoming the first active athlete to be openly homosexual in the four major American pro team sports. We believe he's a hero, in his own right. And in the aftermath of his coming out, via Sports Illustrated, we hope to discover that we live in a society ready, willing and able to treat a gay athlete like any other.
Collins, a free agent, is already being compared to Robinson by the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group fighting for equal rights for LGBT men and women.
"Jason Collins has forever changed the face of sports," the group said in a release. "At a time when millions are reflecting on the life and legacy of Jackie Robinson, Jason Collins is a hero for our own times."
That's a commendable comparison, but, frankly, let's hope it ends there. Let's hope the only ugly rancor endured by Collins comes only via the unavoidable snark, cynicism and scorn that exist on anonymous Internet comment sections and not on the court or in the locker room or stands. Let's hope the vast majority of us are sane and sensible enough to treat a human being like a human being.
Collins is courageously embracing his new identity as The First and all the good and bad attention it will entail, especially in the modern media world. The real value in what he's done is that it will make life easier for the second and the third and on and on. Collins can help foster an environment in which a star high school athlete doesn't have to hide his or her sexual identity for fear that it will derail athletic ambition.
In the immediate aftermath of Collins' announcement, the Twitter buzz included warm reaction from several ballplayers. These were two of my favorite tweets:
From Vinnie Pestano of the Indians:
"Jason Collins that is an entirely different kind of courage. Maybe one day this won't be news at all and we can accept ppl for who they are"
From Aaron Crow of the Royals: "Good for Jason Collins. I'd be proud to call him a teammate if I played in the NBA"
From conversations with many members of the Major League community, I know that such understanding and acceptance certainly isn't limited to American League Central relievers. All across professional sports, we've seen some great examples of athletes, such as the NFL's Chris Kluwe or MLB's Brandon McCarthy, speaking out against homophobia, embracing what ought to be a fundamental notion -- that a person's race, color, creed or sexual identity ought not impact one's ability to pursue his or her dreams.
But we've also seen some ugly incidences of idiocy, with Yunel Escobar's eye black and Chris Culliver's pre-Super Bowl controversy standing out as glaring recent examples. And by and large, a professional clubhouse can be an intimidating place for those whose personality and preferences don't mesh with the majority and the machismo.
We don't have an openly gay baseball player not because there is no such thing as a gay baseball player. We don't have an openly gay baseball player because no one, to date, has been willing to put aside his privacy and subject himself to the attention, the distraction and the reaction his coming out would cause.
Collins is out of the closet, and the expectation is that others, eventually, will follow, hopefully to the point that, someday soon, it simply isn't a big deal. Or news.
What happened Monday, though, was a big deal. Because as was the case when Robinson broke into the big leagues, professional sports offered a sign of societal progress. And this particular sign was long, long overdue.