Mar. 20, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA: Washington Wizards center Jason Collins against the Phoenix Suns at the US Airways Center. The Wizards defeated the Suns 88-79. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Collins: His moment and the transformative power of sport

There’s a funny line in a Seinfeld episode that goes something like this: “Breaking up is like knocking over a vending machine. You’ve gotta rock it back and forth a few times before it falls over.”

Some of us can vouch for the veracity of that, but Jerry’s observation came to mind Monday when I heard the news (first reported by FanSided parent company Sports Illustrated) that veteran NBA big man Jason Collins became the first active male athlete in the four major North American professional sports to come out as a homosexual.

The vending machine analogy applies in Collins’ case, as he’d been considering making his orientation public since the 2011 NBA lockout, when he had some time to think about who he was and what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Now he’s an activist, a role model for anyone who fears embracing their identity, especially if they’re gay and involved in athletics.

In a different way, overcoming my own homophobia has been like felling a Pepsi machine, and my attachment to sport has provided much of the momentum.

I grew up in an accepting household, but my friends and I would use gay as a synonym for stupid and the slur “fa**ot” and its variants were often thrown about. There’s no excuse for it, but that kind of casual bigotry probably stemmed from not knowing a gay person, or at least anyone who was open about their homosexuality.

That state of existence came to an end in college when I met one of the best people I know. He’s a native Pittsburgher who’s a huge fan of baseball in general and the Pirates in particular, so of course we hit it off immediately. He’s also gay in a very matter-of-fact way, which changed my perspective like only personal experience can do.

From that moment on, I became much more sensitive to potentially hurtful language and thought, generated by myself and others. My love of hockey pushed that growth further when I heard the inspiring story of the late Brendan Burke, a manager for the University of Miami hockey team who died in a car accident in February 2010.

Before he passed, Burke had come out to his family, who lovingly accepted who he was. His father Brian, at the time the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, almost immediately became a gay-rights advocate. You might know Brendan’s older brother Patrick, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers who has headed up the groundbreaking You Can Play Project, whose tagline is “Gay Athletes. Straight Allies. Teaming for Respect.”

You Can Play recently made headlines by getting the NHL and NHLPA to agree to provide homosexual sensitivity training to its athletes, a first for a major pro sports league. It makes me proud as a hockey fan that my favorite sport has taken such a step forward. It also makes me determined to be an ambassador for a progressive way of thinking, especially when it comes to fostering an accepting atmosphere around sporting events.

We still have a long way to go as a culture. For as many people who say the Collins story is “no big deal,” there are more who feel open homosexuality is an affront to their religion, their way of life, their identity as a heterosexual. At one time in my life, I would’ve been one of those people.

Sometimes I wonder why I devote so much energy and time to sport, but then I realize its ability to highlight our similarities while trivializing our differences. I was reminded of that when watching the movie 42, which portrayed the pioneering courage of Jackie Robinson.

Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers forced certain people to think about why they considered blacks unworthy of fully participating in society. For me, it comes down to awareness. Collins may never play another minute in the NBA, but he has people talking and thinking about how they treat each other, no matter their gender, race or orientation.

As Brooks Orpik says in the video above, if you can play, you can play. As I found out, you can change, too.

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