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NBA's Jason Collins Comes Out: Will Endorsements Follow?

Jason Collins becomes the first openly gay athlete currently playing professional sports in the U.S.
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Jason Collins becomes the first openly gay athlete currently playing professional sports in the U.S.

Let's be clear: NBA veteran Jason Collins did not come out on Monday to make more money. He's made more than $30 million in an NBA career that dates back to 2001.

The reasons are personal and his own.

But what is public is the reaction, response and results.

So far, the positive commentary far outweighs the negative.

Boston Celtics' Doc Rivers, who coached Collins for 32 games this year, made a clear reference to him as someone who has made a transcendent move.

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"He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite 'team' players I have ever coached. If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society who has to learn tolerance."

Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace is neither a teammate of Collins nor an athlete in the same sport, but a since-deleted tweet shows that tolerance—although heavily outweighing intolerance so far—isn't ubiquitous:

"All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys SMH ..."

In the world of business and basketball, though, the comments aren't as important as what happens next. And it all hinges on two questions: Will Jason Collins play in the NBA next season? Will he get opportunities to make money outside of basketball?

"People don't exceptionalize him and endorse him if he's not a player," said Bob Witeck, President of Witeck Communications, which focuses on corporate marketing and communications.

The assumption seems to be that a good looking, articulate African American in 2013 could probably see a strong endorsement pop from this type of announcement.

However, it remains an assumption until proven otherwise. Most likely, there are companies who want to associate with him, and Nike might increase its support of Collins, who is already under contract with the sports apparel giant.

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But, as they say, it's not a slam dunk.

"It depends on if he plays and plays well," Witeck said. "If not, this is simply a moment."

People might disagree on that, but no one doubts that, even if it is considered "a moment," it's an important one.

That's what brings us to question number one:

Collins is 34-years old and six years away from being a starter in the NBA. He only played in 38 games last season, starting just nine. Some within NBA circles told CNBC that there was a chance he would have been out of basketball anyway.

So, if he isn't signed and isn't an active member of an NBA team, perhaps, as Witeck said, it is simply a "moment". Again, that takes nothing away from the social significance. It is a positive step, but perhaps, not the full test case for basketball and business…yet.

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"It is inevitable," said Witeck of someone in his prime coming out while playing for major professional sport.

"Is he the poster child? Maybe not. He's a free agent older in his career than others," Witeck said. "But he is the tipping point for many, many things.

"He is a door opener for others, and he will show the water is fine, and he is showing the path."

And some star players are showing a path to acceptance, as Rivers pointed out. The biggest name might be Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who tweeted:

"Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don't suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others #courage #support #mambaarmystandup #BYOU"

This sentiment was spread far and wide over Twitter, Facebook and traditional medial.

The next step is to see the degree that action reflects the loud words spoke on Monday, April 29.

—By CNBC's Brian Shactman; Follow him on Twitter: @bshactman
—CNBC's Ryan Ruggiero contributed to this article; Follow him on Twitter: @RyanRuggiero


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