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Chorus of praise from Obama, others for Jason Collins shows times, they are a changin’

Apr 30, 2013, 7:59 AM EDT

Jason Collins AP

Six years ago retired NBA player John Amaechi came out and announced he was gay after a four-teams-in-five-years NBA career. The reaction was decidedly mixed within the basketball community. What we all remember most was Tim Hardaway saying, “I hate gay people” (a stance he has since recanted).

There was a smattering of hate when Jason Collins came out as a gay man on Monday, but the tone was largely different — like polls have shown America’s attitude has shifted on the issue of gay and lesbian rights, the attitude of the NBA community has shifted. Collins spoke with Amaechi before making his announcement, but the reaction — including some very thoughtful journalism — is the sign of the steps we as a nation are taking toward acceptance, particularly among younger generations. And NBA is a young man’s game. There are many more steps to take, but some have been clearly taken.

In a sign of that, a number of players — including Kobe Bryant, a guy once fined for using a gay slur on the court — quickly came to Collins’ support. Then there was the call Collins got from President Barack Obama.

Hours after Collins disclosed his sexuality in an online article, Obama reached out by phone, expressing his support and telling Collins he was impressed by his courage, the White House said.

In the past couple years I was in an NBA locker room pregame (along with another reporter) speaking casually with guys getting ready for warm-ups when the topic of having a gay teammate came up (no, I’m not naming the players in an off-the-record conversation). One player said he would uncomfortable with an openly gay teammate. But the guy at the next locker looked up and piped in with a question “Can the guy play?” And among younger players that seems to be the focus — if he can contribute they don’t care what he does off the court. NBA players are protective of their privacy and are willing to extend that courtesy to others.

There has been a reaction from some that “is this a big deal?” But it is because unlike going into law or medicine or insurance sales, the professional team sport locker room was one last inhospitable work environment for gays.

Collins has helped changed that. You can bet there are other gay athletes right now in other American team sports who feel empowered by what Collins did. Amaechi told the AP that younger gay athletes also saw what Collins did and it gave them hope.

“I’m getting tons of messages right now from people talking to me about him, about what he’s done,” Amaechi told The Associated Press. “I’ve spoken to a couple of college athletes in the States and a couple of high school athletes who are very good who have been immensely buoyed by this news. They feel a weight lifted off them even if they aren’t out and they aren’t going to come out at this point.”

It’s another step in the march we as a nation are taking on the issue. Not everyone is going to come along but the path the nation is on with this issue is pretty clear. (Why do you think so many career politicians are changing their views on this? Self-preservation is a strong political instinct.)

Collins has taken a bold step. But the tone of the reactions just six years later shows how many steps we have already taken on this issue.

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