The great Martina Navratilova came out of the closet so long ago that her closet’s been foreclosed on by now. She stopped making payments on it way back in 1981, when Ronald Reagan was new to the presidency and AIDS didn’t yet have a name. Navratilova was a pioneer–but less like those who settled the American West and more like those who traveled in space: relatively few have followed. Navratilova’s fearless declaration of her sexual orientation may have opened a door, but hardly any famous athletes walked through it. The diver Greg Louganis was notably one. But most were, like Louganis and Navratilova, performers in individual sports, where the complex matter of team chemistry has little bearing on success. Team sports are different, one hears–and on a team the fragile esprit d’corp can be as important as x’s and o’s.
This week seven-foot-tall NBA journeyman Jason Collins ducked and walked through Navratilova’s creaky door. He became the first athlete in one of America’s big four team sports to come out as gay. (Admittedly, fellow hoopster Dennis Rodman’s desultory admissions of bisexuality make his a difficult case to call.) Collins, by all accounts a nice man, isn’t–like Navratilova–a Hall of Famer. A free agent near the end of his career, he may not even be in the league next year, which makes his status as the first “active player” to come out potentially dubious. Nevertheless he’s being praised widely and justifiably for his candor and courage. Still it’s worth mentioning that he makes his claim in an environment (America at least, if not yet the NBA) where gay rights are a real and credible issue, and where gay marriage is supported by nearly 60% of the population. It makes what Martina Navratilova did in 1981 all the more remarkable, given the times. She had far more to lose and yet became the greatest winner in tennis history. She’s proud of Collins, calls him a “game-changer.” But you can tell she has something to say about history in this Tweet to him: “1981 was the year for me- 2013 is the year for you:).