‘Out to Win’: Jason Collins Coaches Gay Athletes and Celebs on the Art of Coming Out
Jason Collins and Conner Mertens, the first active NBA star and college football player to come out, respectively, open up about the unique struggle closeted athletes face.
“You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known,” proclaimed former NBA star Tim Hardaway. “I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States.”
Hardaway’s outrageously bigoted statements, made on a Miami sports radio show back in 2007—just one week after John Amaechi became the first former NBA player to come out—open the action of Out to Win, filmmaker Malcolm Ingram’s (Small Town Gay Bar) zeitgeisty documentary that aims to inspire athletes both young and old to live their truth in the face of institutional oppression.
Ingram’s film features interviews with dozens of out athletes who share their poignant stories of coming out, from Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova to ex-MLB player Billy Bean and the aforementioned NBA torchbearer Amaechi. The film, which made its world premiere at this year’s SXSW, paints a picture of a society that’s becoming much more open and accommodating to gay athletes.
The Daily Beast had the pleasure of sitting down with two of the film’s subjects down in Austin, Texas: Jason Collins, who became the first active NBA player to announce he was gay, and Conner Mertens, the first active college football player to come out. And it’s fitting that our chat is happening in Texas, a battleground state in the fight for gay rights where same-sex couples are still being denied the right to marry, and sodomy laws—defined as “deviate sexual behavior”—were a criminal offense until as recently as 2003.
“Austin is great and very different from other parts of the state,” says Collins. “They have that great saying, Keep Austin Weird.”
Collins was an All-American at Stanford University before getting drafted in the first round in 2001 by the Houston Rockets. He played 13 seasons in the NBA for six different teams, and helped guide the Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in the early aughts, where he clashed with the Lakers’ legendary center Shaquille O’Neal. He publicly came out following the 2012-2013 NBA season while a free agent, and—after a period of uncertainty—eventually signed with the Nets in February 2014, becoming the first openly gay athlete to play in any of the four major U.S. sports leagues.
According to Collins, coming out was a difficult—but ultimately rewarding—process. He’d dealt with plenty of casual homophobia in NBA locker rooms, and recalls one incident in particular in the wake of the Manti Te’o revelation.
“There was a college football player who got catfished, and I was playing for the Boston Celtics at the time. When the story broke, we had practice the following day and I knew I didn’t want to be in the locker room to hear what the guys had to say about the whole situation,” Collins recalls. “So I’m in the weight room before practice and a lot of the talk was very homophobic. It got to the point where I was doing arm curls and a couple of guys walked into the weight room continuing the conversation they’d had, and one player mentioned the story to me and said, ‘What if you had a gay teammate right now, and he’s looking at you doing arm curls and trying to touch your arms going, ‘Oooh, your arms are so big!’ And I’m sitting there thinking deep down, ‘Dude… I’m gay.’”
For Mertens, a kicker for D-III Willamette University who came out in January 2014, and thus became the first college football player ever to come out, it’s tough for gay athletes to push back against the macho subculture of sports.
“It’s bred at a really young age,” Mertens says. “The point of athleticism is to be the strongest and better than your opponent, and being LGBT is seen as a weakness in our society, which is heartbreaking. For me, the thing I wanted to avoid was being seen as weak. Kickers are already looked down on, so if you add the fact that I like guys, it’s this twofold thing where they think you’re less of a man. A lot of it stems from the hypermasculinity of sports where you don’t want your opponent to see your weakness, and we need to move towards a place where being LGBT isn’t seen as a weakness.”
Collins concurs. “One of the worst insults, especially for an athlete in a contact sport, is to be called ‘soft,’” he says. “Anytime I hear a coach say something like that, I see red. And you have all these stereotypes of what it means to be a gay athlete in sports, and being gay does not equate to being soft. We’ve got to get over that.”
One of the reasons, of course, that homophobia is so prevalent in America is organized religion—in particular the church. Collins was forced to deal with this firsthand when, in the wake of his coming out, ESPN basketball analyst Chris Broussard made incendiary comments on ESPN’s Outside the Lines stating that homosexuality was an “unrepentant sin” and an “open rebellion to God.”
“I can speak about Broussard because we did have a conversation after he made those comments. With Chris, it’s religion and what he’s been taught,” says Collins, before launching into an explainer on why homophobia is prevalent within the black community. “A lot of that goes back to the church—the black church. For years, dealing with slavery and racism and everything, the church was a sacred place that brought people together and helped African Americans get through a lot of tough times. So it comes down to whether the preacher is spreading a message of love and acceptance, or a message of ‘sin’ that makes people feel bad about parts of themselves, which then translates to them hating parts of other people. I support churches that spread the message of love.”
Collins also feels that people—and churches—need to get over the bizarre notion that gay people can be “converted;” that your sexual orientation is something malleable and subject to change. “If you’re born gay, it’s who you are. It’s just a question of whether you acknowledge it or choose to live a lie. But you are who you are,” he says.
And Mertens was forced to deal with the wrath of organized religion as well. For years, he was a volunteer of Young Life, an organization that teaches the principles of Christianity to young kids. Mertens was a mentor to a dozen eighth-graders who admired and looked up to him, but once he came out, he was booted from the organization, which told him you “can’t practice a homosexual lifestyle and be a volunteer.”
“I had 12 guys in my group and after I came out, seven of the guys contacted me immediately and said, ‘Dude, I can’t believe they’re not letting you be my leader anymore. Nothing changes.’ So that, in and of itself, showed promise.”
When Collins was going through the trying process of coming out, he was mentored by Amaechi, whom he calls “a dear friend.” And now Collins is paying it forward, serving as a mentor to closeted LGBT athletes at the collegiate and professional levels—and even a handful of Hollywood celebrities.
“Lots of people have reached out—and not just in sports. I just went to dinner with someone in the entertainment world, actually, who’s struggling with this same thing,” says Collins. “I can only be there to listen, and tell them what I went through. I had a trainer in Los Angeles who was there for me and listened, and it went a long way. A lot of it is listening and supporting, because when I was in the closet, I felt like I had a filter and was censored, and couldn’t say this, or couldn’t say that. It’s weird when you have those first few conversations with someone who knows you’re gay and don’t have to change pronouns. It’s the same thing when I’m having conversations with those individuals who are still in the closet. They’re allowed to talk without a mask on.”
Collins also served as a mentor to Mertens. The two met just a few weeks after Mertens came out at a Freedom Oregon event, an organization of Republicans who’ve rallied in support of marriage equality. Mertens says Collins was able to “calm me down about a lot of the issues I was freaking out about.” Of the event, Collins jokes, “It’s how all Republicans should be, but anyways….”
But the tide is indeed turning. According to the film, approximately 109 LGBT athletes came out last year, and yes, many prominent Republicans have come out in support of LGBT rights. Heck, even Tim Hardaway came around. In 2011, the ex-NBA star (and outspoken homophobe) participated in a rally defending the mayor of El Paso after he faced a recall for allowing domestic partnership rights to gay and unmarried couples, and in 2013, his was the first signature on a petition that sought to overturn Florida’s gay-marriage ban.
“You’re dealing with some people who are of a certain mindset, so it’s going to take more and more examples of people stepping forward in their private and professional lives to help others evolve,” says Collins.