It was only a matter of time before someone did it. And the first gay athlete to come out who is active in a major North American pro team sport is hardly a household name. But none of that diminishes the impact of Jason Collins’ blunt announcement: “I am a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

It’s certain he’s not the only one. Thanks to Collins, it will be easier for the next National Basketball Association player, hockey star, baseball idol or football hero to tell the public he is gay. And as the pro sports locker room — one of the last bastions of traditional macho attitudes — becomes more welcoming, fans and players at every level and of all ages will be encouraged to tell the truth about who they are.

That’s the real significance of Collins’ revelation in Sports Illustrated last week. He writes that he didn’t set out to be a trailblazer. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

That took courage. There’s a reason that, over decades of active professional play by thousands of North American athletes in the big four sports, not one stepped forward to declare he’s gay. None was willing to risk a backlash in the club house and from a homophobic population that, to society’s shame, represented a majority view.

Times are changing. Gay marriage has become routine in Canada and is winning increasing acceptance in the United States. Gays and lesbians can now openly serve in the U.S. military and have been standard bearers of progress in all walks of life. Even in sports there have been breakthroughs. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova came out in 1981 and, just a few weeks ago, so did women’s basketball star Brittney Griner. “Just be who you are,” was her advice.

That’s significant, to be sure. But to come out — as Collins did — in big league men’s basketball, hockey, football or baseball represents a larger shift, given the lightning-rod profile of these sports and the traditional tough-guy posturing of their athletes.

“I’ve endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie,” Collins wrote. But now that’s over. “Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it’s a good place to start.”

Building on Collins’ example by having more high-profile athletes come out is the best way to defuse any lingering hate.

— The Star, Toronto, May 1

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