Washington Wizards center Jason Collins warms up before a game against the New Orleans Hornets at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Harry E. Walker/MCT via Getty Images
Washington Wizards center Jason Collins warms up before a game against the New Orleans Hornets at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Harry E. Walker/MCT via Getty Images

It was only a matter of time, and that time has arrived: In the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, NBA center Jason Collins has come out as gay.

The first thing to note is that this is a historic moment. Think about how long it has taken. Dave Kopay, a former NFL running back, declared he was gay 38 years ago, when he was three years removed from his playing career. Since then, other ex-athletes in major sports have come out. And active athletes in minor sports --- such as Martina Navratilova in tennis -- have come out.

Collins is different. Assuming he signs a new contract for the 2013-2014 season (he’s currently a free agent), he will be a trailblazer, the first openly gay active athlete in one of the four major professional sports in the U.S.

It should also be said -- and celebrated -- that Collins came out willingly. History has unwitting heroes; there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s an undeniably good thing that our first openly gay athlete in a major sport wasn’t pushed out the closet by, say, a picture in a tabloid. America, and the gay-rights movement, deserved better.

In sports as in politics, our journey to this historic moment was both incremental and sudden. Remember that in 2008, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama publicly opposed same-sex marriage. By the summer of 2012, marriage equality was part of the Democratic Party platform.

Similarly, after years of agonizingly slow progress toward equal rights in the sweaty, hyper-heterosexual world of sports -- for every step forward, there always seemed to be a step back -- the pace suddenly quickened in recent months. Two active NFL players, Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in favor of marriage equality before it heard oral arguments last month. Soon after, the NHL formed a partnership with the You Can Play project, a group devoted to eliminating homophobia from sports.

For months now, rumors have been circulating in sports circles that an active athlete was about to come out. Why now? Collins, a 34-year-old NBA journeyman, explained in Sports Illustrated that his epiphany came when his old Stanford roommate, the Representative Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, told him that he had marched in the 2012 Gay Pride Parade in Boston. “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,” Collins wrote.

It’s hard not to wonder if the rise of social media wasn’t a factor, too. For someone on the cusp of coming out, much of the anxiety is about the reaction, and now all the reaction is pretty much instantaneous. (Needless to say, Jason Collins is trending on Twitter now.)

Now that an active player has come out, can a superstar be far behind?

(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)