‘I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.’

NBA player Jason Collins made history today with three simple sentences in Sports Illustrated: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” That announcement makes him the first out male athlete playing in any of the four major American sports leagues (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB).

Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said today:

We applaud Jason Collins for his honesty and integrity in choosing to come out. In doing so, he has become a role model not just on the court, but far beyond it. By having the courage to be true to himself — and to the world — he has become a role model for young people everywhere, for all of sports, and for America. All people should be able to live their lives freely and openly no matter who they are or who they love.

In an interview, Collins said:

I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, “I’m different.” If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand….

The strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage. Less then three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future. Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn’t say a thing. I didn’t want to answer questions and draw attention to myself. Not while I was still playing.

I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted. And yet we still have so much farther to go. Everyone is terrified of the unknown, but most of us don’t want to return to a time when minorities were openly discriminated against. I’m impressed with the straight pro athletes who have spoken up so far — Chris Kluwe, Brendon Ayanbadejo. The more people who speak out, the better, gay or straight. It starts with President Obama’s mentioning the 1969 Stonewall riots, which launched the gay rights movement, during his second inaugural address. And it extends to the grade-school teacher who encourages her students to accept the things that make us different.

N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern released a statement welcoming Collins’s announcement:

Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career,” Stern said, “and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue.

The barrier that he has broken is huge, but he is by no means the first male professional athlete to come out of the closet. Recently soccer player Robbie Rogers came out as gay and last fall professional boxer Orlando Cruz came out.

Out athletes are nothing new for women, with early out professional female athletes Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King coming out thirty two years ago. And just recently the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, Brittney Griner, came out. Fallon Fox also recently came out as the first openly transgender athlete in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA.)

We applaud Jason Collins’s courage and hope that his honesty and openness have started the conversation among athletes in the major American sports leagues, as well as breaking through a barrier for future professional athletes.

While Collins’s announcement has seen an overwhelmingly positive response, including a call from President Obama, he has unfortunately been criticized by some including ESPN’s Chris Broussard who implied that gay people can’t be Christians. Yet, many people of faith including Christians instill a value of acceptance that Jason Collins spoke about:

I’m from a close-knit family. My parents instilled Christian values in me. They taught Sunday school, and I enjoyed lending a hand. I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding. On family trips, my parents made a point to expose us to new things, religious and cultural. In Utah, we visited the Mormon Salt Lake Temple. In Atlanta, the house of Martin Luther King Jr. That early exposure to otherness made me the guy who accepts everyone unconditionally.

Our Task Force Faith Work Director Rev. Rebecca Voelkel praised Collins’s statement:

We are particularly gratified by Jason Collins’ articulate connection between his Christian faith and his desire to live with unconditional acceptance, tolerance and understanding. Our religious traditions can be great reservoirs of wisdom in teaching us how to make this a better and more just world.