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NBA's Jason Collins comes out

Occasionally, sports news has a larger cultural significance that's worth appreciating. The first openly gay player from one of the major professional sports leagues qualifies as a breakthrough.

The NBA's Jason Collins wrote a lengthy piece for Sports Illustrated, doing what no professional male athlete in team sports has ever done.

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

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.

Collins' piece is well worth your time, and he talks in some detail about his career and his motivations. The SI cover story cites, among other thing, the Boston Marathon bombing -- "Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?" -- and a recent conversation with Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), Collins' roommate at Stanford, who marched in Boston's 2012 Gay Pride Parade. "I was proud of him for participating but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn't even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator," he wrote.

It's worth emphasizing, of course, that Collins is not the first openly gay American athlete. There have been plenty of successful gay tennis players and Olympians, and the WNBA has had openly gay stars.

But in the United States, the four major male professional leagues -- the NFL, NBA, NHL, and major-league baseball -- dominate the sports landscape and have never had an openly gay player. It's what helps make Collins' announcement a cultural milestone.

I don't doubt that there have been, and probably continue to be, plenty of gay athletes in all of these team sports, but none have been willing to do what Collins has had the courage to do, which makes this a historic day.

I will look forward to the point at which announcements like these are routine and uninteresting -- the point at which American culture has progressed to such an extent that LGBT athletes see no need to hide their sexual orientation and there are no fears about repercussions from other players, team officials, the league, or fans.

But in the meantime, I'm inclined to applaud cultural advances like these, and feel relief with announcements like this one from NBA David Stern: "Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career, and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue."

Update: I neglected to mention something important: the significance of role models in any society. Plenty of young people look up to professional athletes, and Collins deserves a lot of credit for his willingness to be a role model.