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Minnesota United midfielder Collin Martin publicly came out as gay in a social media statement Friday morning, making him the only out athlete currently playing in one of the five major men’s North American sports leagues.

Martin, 23, is the first male athlete from any of those major leagues to say he is gay since 2014, when Michael Sam came out ahead of the NFL draft. Martin is believed to be the first male athlete from a pro Minnesota team to come out publicly during his career.

“I never thought that was completely important because I thought it’d been done before,” Martin said in an interview with the Star Tribune. “But, I mean, you look around, there’s still not an out professional athlete in the five major sports in America … right now. So it’s still important.”

Robbie Rogers, a former LA Galaxy and U.S. national team soccer player, was the first openly gay man to compete in one of the top five leagues after he came out in February 2013. He retired in 2017 after missing the season with injuries.

About two months after Rogers came out, veteran NBA center Jason Collins announced he was gay. He played for the Brooklyn Nets in 2014 before retiring that same year. Sam, who was the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year at Missouri, came out almost a year after Rogers before the St. Louis Rams drafted the defensive lineman. He retired in 2015 without playing an official NFL game.

In baseball, a minor league player from the Milwaukee Brewers’ system, David Denson, came out as gay in 2015; he retired in 2017. The NHL has never had an out player. Other sports have several out male athletes, such as figure skater Adam Rippon and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy, who both participated in the Olympics.

Martin has played in 20 games with 13 starts since joining the Loons last year, including starting five of the past nine. He said he decided rather suddenly to come out Friday ahead of United’s Pride Night game. He did not play in the 1-0 loss to FC Dallas but participated in a halftime ceremony for United’s community award and received applause.

A fairly private person who rarely posts on Instagram or Twitter, Martin said one day it just clicked for him, and he decided he was ready to move forward. He informed the team of his plan Monday. The Chevy Chase, Md., native has been out to his four siblings and friends for about four years and to his parents and teammates for about two.

Team, sport has backed him

He said a few factors recently inspired him to make a public statement. One was seeing how much support there is in soccer for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. About 125 men’s and women’s soccer players from all different levels participate in Playing for Pride, a fundraising campaign in its second year that raises money and encourages conversation about inclusion.

“I’ve been out with the team and with my teammates and the staff for over a year now, and I’ve had nothing but support,” Martin said. “It’s taken me a while to feel comfortable on the teams I’ve played on and to be completely myself, and talk to my teammates about my [ex-]boyfriend and who I’m going on dates with or about being gay myself. And all that has been super rewarding.

“It was just trying to maybe get over that hump and to maybe see if I can just affect more people, because I think I’ve affected a lot of people in my daily life and around this locker room positively just by being myself.”

Martin said he read several coming-out stories from athletes in other sports and at other levels that share a negative aspect or barrier to overcome. He admits to having those, too, culminating during his one year at Wake Forest when he used alcohol as a defense mechanism while trying to figure out his sexuality as well as his place within a soccer team and a heteronormative world.

Since returning home and signing his first professional contract as a homegrown player for D.C. United in 2013, he was finally able to explore the sexuality he knew he identified with since he was a boy.

Those he has come out to have met him with support and understanding. While Martin shies away from talk of being brave or an inspiration, he hopes sharing his story will encourage younger gay athletes to know there is a space for them, just as athletes who came out before encouraged him.

“It’s important for people to just respect themselves and respect their own timeline but to also just be open and honest and understand that locker rooms are changing,” Martin said. “And professional sports are a place for people to be themselves wholeheartedly.”

Positive reaction

By the end of the game Friday, Martin’s announcement had 60,000 likes and 13,000 retweets on Twitter. He said he didn’t expect that magnitude of response and couldn’t figure out how to turn off the notifications on his phone. During the game, he said he noticed the crowd yelling his name a bit more and was happy to have Dallas players come up to him and express support.

And the support has been abundant both online and in person, from the likes of MLS Commissioner Don Garber to Martin’s own team.

“To see the reception he’s gotten publicly from the fans, from other teams, from other players around the league,” center back Michael Boxall said, “I think it’s heartwarming to see.”

Team owner Bill McGuire said he wasn’t worried at all about any negative business ramifications from Martin’s announcement, calling it “a human statement” not “a political statement.” Coach Adrian Heath said as far as Martin’s job on the field, this will make “no difference.”

“It’s a brave decision,” Heath said. “Hopefully, if there’s one or two people out there thinking about it, this might give them the emphasis to join him.”

When Martin came to Minnesota in a trade ahead of the Loons’ inaugural 2017 MLS season, he didn’t have to make any big announcement to the whole team.

“It’s funny. I told maybe one or two guys last year, and it just spread really fast,” Martin said. “You tell the right person, and he’ll tell everyone for you.”

Martin’s closest teammate, fellow midfielder Collen Warner, said he remembered going to dinner with Martin and several of the draft picks early last season when Martin told them he was gay. The group didn’t believe him at first, since Martin is known for joking.

“All of us basically said, ‘You’re lying to us.’ … Everybody was, like, chirping at him. But then he was like, ‘No, seriously, I’m gay,’ ” Warner said. “I remember it being an emotional night because I’ve never really experienced anything like that as far as a close friend or anything.”

Martin said for some of his teammates, such as Warner, he is their first gay friend or first gay person they know. To sit down to lunch with them and have intimate conversations about what it’s like to be gay is “priceless,” he said.

“For them to ask me … anything that you would ask a normal person that’s your friend and for them to ask me those questions and feel comfortable with it, I love that,” Martin said. “And for them to ask dumb questions for me to be like, ‘No. You have it completely wrong. You’re ignorant. You’re being stupid.’ That stuff means a lot.

“Or for them to be like, ‘How was your date the other night, Collin?’ Mainly because, I mean, I’m very open. I like to tell them everything. But for them to also engage with me makes me feel … like nothing else is new, which is how it should be.”

While not all of the reaction has been positive, Martin’s father, Gerard Martin, said he knows his son is prepared to handle it and has been since he was 6 years old, when he drew attention for being the smallest, youngest and most talented player on his youth soccer team. That tended to rattle some of the more intense parents.

“Parents would scream at him and say, ‘You don’t belong here. Play with your own age.’ And he would just sit there and laugh,” Gerard Martin said. “He would play the soccer game, and he would do something amazing, and he’d turn around and look at the father who was yelling the most at him and point right at the father and then he’d put his finger to his lip like, ‘Shh.’

“He always had a huge personality. If someone was going to get after him, he was going to show them.”