Jason Collins looks to future as Lakers celebrate their first Pride Night

LOS ANGELES — After he made history by becoming the first openly gay active male athlete in North America’s four major professional sports in 2014, Jason Collins thought there would be more professional gay male athletes to follow him.

As he proudly celebrated the Los Angeles Lakers‘ first Pride Night when he was honored by the organization Thursday, Collins said he has been in contact with and supports other athletes who have yet to come out.

“Definitely hoped that there would be more players who would step up because I know I’m not alone,” Collins said before the Lakers played the Kings at Staples Center in a preseason game. “I’m in contact with some people who are in professional sports in the big four and aren’t ready to publicly come forward yet. My job with the NBA now is to try to create an environment that makes them feel comfortable to step forward and also to tell our allies that we need them to step forward as well.”

Collins, who is a Global Ambassador and diversity advocate for the NBA, returned to the site where he played his first game as an openly gay male athlete after he signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets and faced the Lakers on Feb. 23, 2014.

Minnesota United FC midfielder Collin Martin is currently the only openly gay professional male athlete in North America after he became the second openly gay player in Major League Soccer history, following Robbie Rogers of the LA Galaxy.

Collins praised the NBA as “the best overall with regards to being an ally” as the Lakers hosted members and supporters from the LGBTQ community and celebrated diversity, inclusion and unity. Lakers CEO Jeanie Buss showed her support by wearing a Lakers Pride Night shirt and also dyeing her hair.

Collins, though, hopes gay male athletes can come forward and receive the same reaction that many WNBA players have.

“To have it like in the WNBA, where a player like a Sue Bird can step forward, and everyone is like, ‘Great, go win that championship,'” Collins said. “And that’s exactly what she just did. Or what happened with Elena Delle Donne right before the Rio Olympics, same type thing and everyone’s like, ‘Great, now go win a gold medal.’

“So when we’re at that day with male athletes who choose to step forward and share their true self with the world, it’s like, ‘Great, now go win a championship.’ And so we have some work to do, because throughout male professional sports, at least in North America in the top five leagues, we only have one currently out male player, and that’s in the MLS.”

The NBA has fined players in the past for using gay slurs. In 2011, the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 for a gay slur and the star apologized and said his actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game and didn’t reflect his feelings toward gays.

In 2015, Rajon Rondo was ejected from a game and then suspended for one game without pay after “directing a derogatory and offensive term toward a game official and not leaving the court in a timely manner upon his ejection” while with the Sacramento Kings. Rondo, now a member of the Lakers, tweeted an apology back then saying, “My actions during the game were out of frustration and emotion, period!”

In a second tweet in 2015, Rondo said: “They absolutely do not reflect my feelings toward the LGBT community. I did not mean to offend or disrespect anyone.”

Collins said part of his ambassador role is to talk to incoming NBA rookies to create awareness and sensitivity when it comes to using homophobic slurs.

“I think our league has done a great job as far as setting the tone that that language is unacceptable,” Collins said. “In the NBA currently, the minimum fine is $50,000 if someone is caught using homophobic language. Sending that strong message, trying to change the language … part of my responsibility is talking to incoming rookies about their language and reminding them of the fine but then also reminding them, because everybody knows what it’s like to be sort of outcast.

“Our league has a lot of people of color and know what it’s like to be the only person of color in the room. So how did you feel in that moment? You want to feel wanted, you want to feel accepted. And to share that message and that is why you want to support your teammates, these are your brothers out there, to have their back and make everyone feel accepted.”

Lakers coach Luke Walton said “it’s awesome” to see the message the organization was sending on Pride Night.

“It’s inclusivity, diversity, these are things we should all value every day,” Walton said. “The fact we’re honoring it tonight, I’m all for and I’m behind 100 percent.”

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