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Fennelly: Because he’s first, what Collins did matters

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Published:   |   Updated: May 2, 2013 at 06:45 AM

TAMPA Maybe youíre feeling 7 feet tall after what Jason Collins did.

Iím not trying to make Collins into Jackie Robinson. Thereís no need to compare. But to say that what Collins did isnít important, to minimize what he did this week, becoming the first openly gay male athlete in a major American team sport, thatís plain foolish.

He went first. It always matters who goes first in the name of tolerance, acceptance and equality, no matter who it is, or where, or when, or why.

ďIt does take a lot of courage to do that when youíre a professional athlete,Ē Rays pitcher David Price said.

Now, Iím sure it wasnít real courage, you know, not like the kind it takes to call in on the radio to say Collins is a washed-up center looking for money and publicity. Thatís hitting the nail on the head, because who among us hasnít known, for decades, that being black and then announcing that youíre gay, thatís where the real dough is.

The other day matters because it might matter to someone who hasnít come out, who fears the consequences if he or she does.

And it matters, because the support Collins has received tells us how far weíve come. How far we have to go is for another day, and that day will come, because we always find a way to get there. Sometimes we take the long way, but we get there. Letís smile at the possibility that our latest generation, and the next, while they might not be in Tom Brokawís boxed set, might lead us to still brighter days when it comes to issues of race and sexual orientation.

One of the many touching things in Jason Collinsí story is that during the 2012-13 season with the Washington Wizards he wore the jersey number 98 for 1998 ó the year Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and roped to a prairie fence. Shepard died a few days after he was found. He lives on.

What Collins did this week will live on, too. Itís astonishing that it took this long. But it speaks to the forces at work. People were afraid. They were afraid of their place in the jock culture, in society, in everyday life. Athletes are no different from anyone who has heard the jokes, the slurs, felt the hate.

One of my college friends came out after we left school. We knew without him telling us, but my friend wasnít sure what his family would think, what we would think. How many of us have had a family member come out and been heartbroken at the idea that, even for a split second, they worried about what we would think, as if we would love them less.

Thatís why what Jason Collins did, it matters. Iím not telling you to build statues to him and neither is he. Heíd settle for open minds.

The early returns show real promise, even allowing for the usual virulent strain, the cave people whoíve long been lobotomized by bigotry. Most of the rest of us get it. And, simple as it sounds, thatís how a great nation becomes even greater, step by step, accepting or at least tolerating other points of view or lifestyles.

And maybe because of this story, even long after it leaves center stage, a few more people will feel safe to come out and be who they are and love who they are, be it in a locker room, a school hall or on a marriage license.

What Jason Collins did, it matters.

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