MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
When the seven-foot tall NBA center Jason Collins came out yesterday in Sports Illustrated revealing that he's gay, he got a statement of praise from former President Bill Clinton and a phone call from President Obama, who talked about Collins at today's White House news conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He seems like a terrific young man and, yeah, I told him I couldn't be prouder of him.
BLOCK: Jason Collins becomes the first openly gay active player in a major American men's team sport. And tennis great Martina Navratilova calls him a game changer. She herself came out way back in 1981, and she joins me from Miami to talk about this moment and what it means. Martina Navratilova, welcome to the program.
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: Thanks for having me. Thank you so much.
BLOCK: This is, of course, a milestone that people have been waiting for for quite some time and now it's actually happened. What was your first reaction when you heard yesterday?
NAVRATILOVA: Well, I figured it would be by the end of the year that we would have this happen. I didn't think it would be by the end of the month. John Wertheim from Sports Illustrated had asked me to write an article about what it will mean when a player comes out in one of the major leagues, and we thought, OK, we'll just have it in the can and, you know, we'll run it when it happens. And two weeks later, here it is.
BLOCK: Well, it's a good thing you finished the piece.
NAVRATILOVA: It's a good thing. It is a game changer because nobody has come out before while they were still playing. And, of course, you know, he was getting all kinds of play on Twitter, but what matters is that this young man - well, by an athletic standard, he's an old guy...
BLOCK: 34, yeah.
NAVRATILOVA: ...came out and it paves the way for a lot of young kids growing up who might be questioning their sexuality, feeling all alone. He validated them.
BLOCK: You said actually in your column in Sports Illustrated that Jason Collins won't just be a role model. You said he will save lives.
NAVRATILOVA: Well, it has happened. I mean, I don't want to make it about me, but I've gotten letters over the years from men and women saying you saved my life. I was ready to commit suicide because I thought I was the only one that was like this, and then I saw you on TV or read about you, whatever. And now this is going to happen again. So there's no doubt in my mind that this will save some kid's life.
BLOCK: You know, Ms. Navratilova, in an interview with "Good Morning America," Jason Collins talked about you specifically. Let's listen to what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")
JASON COLLINS: You know, I look at her as one of my heroes. The dignity and the class that she's lived her life and all that she's achieved in her career. She is my role model. Hopefully, going forward, I can be someone else's role model.
NAVRATILOVA: Very sweet. And it's, you know, it's our way of paying it forward. It's great to hear. And now he's doing it for other kids growing up. So it's great.
BLOCK: Well, I mentioned that Jason Collins got a call from President Obama. Think back to 1981 when you came out publicly. What was the reception then for you?
NAVRATILOVA: Well, it was obviously quite different. You know, I was getting some boos and jeers from the public and the media. It wasn't exactly kind either, and - sensationalizing my relationship with whoever. I was fodder for National Inquirer rather than Sports Illustrated or The New York Times. And so it was difficult but, you know, I was still able to play the sport. Nobody could take that away from me.
BLOCK: Did you lose endorsements?
NAVRATILOVA: Well, I didn't get any. Let's put it that way. I still was able to get deals for tennis-related shoes, rackets and clothing, but anything outside of that in this country was - just didn't happen. When - my agent used to say when he was in a boardroom - and he represented both Chris Evert and myself - he said, you know, when he talked about Chris, the ad agencies would say, oh, we could do this or this campaign or that campaign and that campaign. And then when he mentioned my name, the room just would go silent.
But the price that I paid financially cannot be equated to the freedom that I felt by being who I was. I mean, it was suggested to me that I should just put a guy in my box, you know, and pretend I was straight and whatever and I just couldn't do it. So I didn't trumpet my sexuality, but I didn't hide it either.
BLOCK: You know, one thing that Jason Collins told Sports Illustrated was this, he said: I don't let race define me. He's African-American. I don't let race define me any more than I want my sexual orientation to. I don't want to be labeled. And I wonder how hard that will be to not be labeled. He is the first. He has crossed this threshold.
NAVRATILOVA: Well, he's a pioneer, so he will get the most praise as well as probably the most grief. And it will be a bigger deal for him perhaps because he was not a household name. But our sexuality is just a small part of who we are as a human being. And so nobody wants to be defined by that. I spoke at the march on Washington in 1993, and I actually said that I hate labels. Labels are for, you know, put on a drawer or for a piece of clothing, not for people. So I totally get where Jason is coming from. But like it or not, he's a pioneer and he's a hero and a role model for many.
BLOCK: Well, Martina Navratilova, it's been great to talk to you. Thank you so much.
NAVRATILOVA: All right. Appreciate it for having me. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.