Towards the end of his news conference Tuesday morning, several reporters asked President Obama if he wanted to comment on NBA center Jason Collins’ public announcement that he is gay. The president walked back to the podium to respond. “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 of him. 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.”
By revealing his sexuality in a Sports Illustrated editorial, Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete on a major U.S. sports team in the nation’s history. His landmark announcement was discussed over a phone call with the president, and Collins spoke about the exchange on Good Morning America Tuesday.
“He was incredibly supportive and he was proud of me. And said that this not only affected my life, but others going forward,” Collins said.
Collins also spoke at length about his jersey number, #98, which he wore during the 2012-13 NBA season for the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards. Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated that he wore the number to honor the slain gay student Matthew Shepard. ”The number has great significance to the gay community. One of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days after he was finally found.”
Collins also explained to George Stephanopoulos how he felt when he wore the number 98.
“Each time I put on jersey 98 this past season, I was already sort of having that moment with myself, with my family, with my friends who knew the significance of why I picked that number,” Collins said. “Jersey 98 for Matthew Shepherd. That’s why I wore jersey 98.”
The Wizards reported that 100% of personalized jerseys ordered from their online store yesterday were “Collins 98,” according to the Washington Post’s sports writer Dan Steinberg.
Judy and Dennis Shepard, the parents of Matthew Shepard, discussed what Jason Collins’s announcement means to the gay rights movement and spoke about how touched they were to know how much Matthew Shepard’s story resonated with Jason Collins.
“It made me cry to know that Matt’s story still has an impact on young people–we knew it did, but for Jason to acknowledge Matt’s story and for him to come out at all at this time in his career and his life is really pretty amazing,” Judy Shepard told msnbc’s Lawrence O’Donnell.
Matthew Shepard’s father, Dennis Shepard, said Collins will set an example for future gay athletes who no longer have to hide their sexuality.
“It gives a lot of hope to young athletes all over the country if they’re gay. In the past, they’ve had to hide who they are and who they love and this gives them a chance to be themselves and focus on what they should be focused on which is the sport they’re participating in and not focusing half their energy on trying to hide who they are.”
President Obama said Jason Collins will be a future role model for both the LGBT and sports communities. “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 foot tall and can bang with Shaq…and deliver a hard foul… To see a role model like that who is unafraid, I think it’s a great thing.”
On October 22, 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and six days later, President Obama signed the act into law. “It’s a testament to Matthew and to others who’ve been the victims of attacks not just meant to break bones, but to break spirits–not meant just to inflict harm, but to instill fear. Together, we will have moved closer to that day when no one has to be afraid to be gay in America,” said Obama.
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows 53% of participants support same-sex marriage and 42% oppose marriage equality. In 1998, when Matthew Shephard passed away, only 30% of Americans backed same-sex marriage, according to The New York Times‘ FiveThirtyEight blog.