President Obama expressed his support for the decision by professional basketball player Jason Collins to come out this week in an interview with Sports Illustrated.
Obama made his comments at the end of an hour-long press conference today (Tuesday, April 30). After he had already started to exit, a reporter shouted out a question about Collins and President Obama stopped and returned to the podium.
"I had a chance to talk to him yesterday. He seems like a terrific young man, and I told him I couldn't be prouder," said the president.
"One of the extraordinary measures of progress that we've seen in this country has been the recognition that the LGBT community deserves full equality, not just partial equality, not just tolerance but a recognition that they're fully a part of the American family. And given importance of sports in our society, for an individual who has excelled at the highest levels in one of the major sports to go ahead and say, 'This is who I am. I'm proud of it, I'm still a great competitor. I'm still seven-feet tall and can bang with Shaq [O'Neal] and deliver a hard foul'and I think for a lot of young people out there who are gay or lesbian who are struggling with these issues to see a role model like that who is unafraid it's a great thing. America should be proud that this is just one more step in this ongoing recognition that we treat everybody fairly and everybody is part of a family and we judge people on the basis of their character and their performance, and not their sexual orientation. So I'm very proud of him."
Collins, 34, plays center for the Washington Wizards basketball team, and, came out in the May 6 issue of the magazine which was posted online April 29.
"I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay," said Collins. "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 revelation made Collins the first male professional athlete in a major sport to acknowledge being gay while still actively playing his sport and it prompted a flood of conversations in the media and online social networks.
In a follow-up article with Sports Illustrated, Collins said he was stunned when he got a call from President Obama. He said the president told him, "What you did today was brave" and that "it didn't just affect me, it affected so many other people in the country."
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova became one of the first professional athletes to come out. She did so in July 1981 after being sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
"I didn't get a phone call from Ronald Reagan," quipped Navratilova, in an appearance on CNN's Piers Morgan Monday night. She said that "Madison Avenue totally shunned me" and that tennis audiences "were sitting on their hands."
"They weren't clapping when I came on the court or they were booing or jeering," she recalled. "The press was roasting me. It was not a pretty sight. I'd say it was about 95 percent against and maybe I'd get five percent of support. Now, for Jason, it's much different….It's fantastic."
Navratilova said that, unlike with athletes who are part of a team sport, her livelihood was never threatened.
"But now, for Jason,," said Navratilova, "maybe the case is different, and he may actually get more money because of it."
First Lady Michelle Obama also showed support for Collins, posting a Twitter message saying, "So proud of you, Jason Collins! This is a huge step forward for our country. We've got your back!"
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