It's tempting to compare Jason Collins with Jackie Robinson; after all, the biopic about Robinson, "42", is a hot movie ticket right now and both are pioneers.
Yet Robinson's breaking of baseball's color line still seems like a bigger deal than Collins' first-ever announcement by an American major-sports player that he's gay. I say that because Robinson was demonstrably the first black big-league ballplayer, while Collins is certainly not the first gay pro jock. He's just the first to say so while still playing the game.
Make no mistake, though: this is a big deal. It's a big deal because men's sports remain riven with homophobic attitudes. Anti-gay slurs are still commonplace on the playing fields and the sidelines. When Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice recently lost his job, the videotaped spewing of homophobic insults was widely aired. Sadly, those of us who've been around the sports scene were hardly shocked.
Nor were we really shocked when 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver made his widely-reported pre-Super Bowl comments, saying he wouldn't accept an openly-gay teammate. The reality, of course, is that Culliver probably already has played with gay teammates--he just didn't know it.
And that's what's significant about Jason Collins. From now on, there's a face and a name to go with the hazy notion of the gay jock. The next Mike Rice who wants to demean someone by calling him a "fag" will have to come to grips with the hardnosed, intelligent, dignified image of Jason Collins.
Collins is listed in the roster as standing 7 feet tall. He's even bigger than that today.