(The Root) — The measure of man is not easily calculated, nor apparent to the eye. Assessing character requires levers of the heart and mind — rendering scales wholly useless. Martin Luther King Jr. posited that the ultimate measure was to be determined not by where a man stood in times of comfort and convenience but, rather, in times of challenge and controversy.
It seems there are still such men — and they are giants.
At 7 feet and 255 pounds, NBA center Jason Collins — a 34-year-old professional whose career has taken him to the NCAA Final Four and Elite Eight, nine playoffs in 12 NBA seasons and two NBA Finals — has often been, quite literally, the biggest man on the court.
In a world that defines masculinity and virility in terms of strength, size, speed and ferocity, it is serendipitous that Collins has become the first active major American professional male athlete to come out as gay. In a word, it shatters outdated stereotypes and offers a much-needed alternative to the sometimes innocuous (sometimes cartoonish) caricatures of gay men.
"I'm learning to embrace the puzzle that is me," Collins wrote in an exclusive column for Sports Illustrated. Collins, who played with the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards this past season, received overwhelming support from fans and colleagues. President Barack Obama, an avid basketball fan, called Collins personally to commend his "courage." First lady Michelle Obama sent a message via Twitter, "We've got your back!"
NBA Commissioner David Stern issued a statement expressing pride that Collins "has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue." Fellow NBA stars and former teammates showed solidarity, including Kobe Bryant, whose infamous anti-gay slur two years ago landed him a $100,000 fine.
The response is, no doubt, encouraging for a man who admits that he had lived his entire career in fear and chose to keep his secret, in part, out of loyalty to his teammates — saying simply that he decided "not to let [his] personal life become a distraction."
For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths and aspiring athletes, this is admittedly a watershed moment, and one that can lead to greater acceptance. It follows, of course, a positive and changing tide in Americans' perceptions of gay people and gay rights. The U.S. military's decision to allow gay soldiers to serve openly and President Obama's support for marriage equality have brought these issues into the mainstream. Until now, professional male sports has remained the final bastion of a "Don't ask, don't tell" culture that is tacitly homophobic.
By any measure, therefore, Collins' announcement is both a personal and collective triumph. But the sad truth underlying his story — despite the fanfare that it is deservedly receiving — is that there are far too many friends, siblings and colleagues among us who still suffer the suffocating darkness of the closet. Even in 2013.
Can you imagine living a life in which those closest to you didn't even know you? The most touching revelation Collins shared was that his twin brother, Jarron, was "astounded" at his coming out. A brother with whom he has spent his entire life, and who followed him to Stanford and into the NBA, had no clue that his brother was gay. "It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret," Collins wrote. "I've endured years of misery."
Perhaps the culture of professional sports is partly to blame — asking a kind of sacrifice that seems almost commonplace for gay youths — by demanding silence and conformity. But there are millions who won't ever aspire to that level of fame, yet whose demons are still real, and whose nightmares come in the daytime. Fear of losing friends, being rejected by family or becoming the target of bullies — from the classroom to the boardroom — make many young men and women feel that they have no choice but to live a lie.
For Collins the journey to self-acceptance has begun, but his work of being a gay man within the NBA could well be coming to an end. ESPN analysts spent much of yesterday debating whether Collins' age, dwindling stats and the revelation of his sexual orientation could create a trifecta that makes it difficult for him to find a home on another team.
As a newly minted free agent seeking to enter his 13th season, he would already have found his options to be limited. Being gay could complicate matters, since locker room morale would be a consideration in contract negotiations. However, most analysts agreed that there is a shortage of men with Collins' size and experience — as such, there will always be a need for a 7-foot center.
Pro athletes like the NBA's John Amaechi and NFL's Esera Tuaolo both came out after their careers had ended. What makes Collins' journey special, therefore, is the possibility that he may still don an NBA jersey and score before screaming crowds. That would make him the true game changer.
But what must not be lost in celebrating Collins' historic announcement is the fact that there remains an epidemic of LBGT people for whom the misery and pain have not gone away. According to California State University research (pdf), gay youths who have experienced bullying or rejection from family and peers were eight times more likely than heterosexual youths to attempt suicide. They were six times more likely to suffer from depression, three times more likely to use illegal drugs and at higher risk for HIV and other STDs by the time they reached their early 20s.
The Suicide Prevention Resource Center estimates (pdf) that between 30 percent and 40 percent of the nation's LGBT youths have attempted suicide. And research conducted at Rutgers University found that young gay African-American males were particularly challenged in coming out because they were forced to navigate the intersecting oppressions of racism, homophobia and sexism.
There is no doubt that American society is evolving — increasingly becoming a safer place in which to live and love out loud. Having gay and straight allies from the Oval Office to the NBA stadium will help change perceptions and, in time, public policy. Yet the struggle continues and activists are needed — especially for minorities — so that other young black men won't feel constrained to wait and speak after 34 years of fear and doubt. "I knew that I was choosing the road less traveled," Collins wrote yesterday, "But I'm not alone."
And that's the real lesson: He is not alone.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.