To many gays and
lesbians who care about sports, this coming-out was
(literally) the big one -- the one that would officially
open up the idea of homosexuality to a particular
culture that has been anything but embracing.
participants in professional athletics had treated gays and
lesbians not as people but slurs. Play soft and
you're a faggot. Dress colorfully and
you're queer. Step into the shower with a slightly
effeminate teammate and you should make sure to grab soap on
wasn't all that long ago that one of my former
Sports Illustrated colleagues walked
through the locker room of the NBA's New Jersey
Nets after a game while wearing (gasp!) a yellow scarf. The
nerve! "Ho-mo-sex-u-al!" chanted David Benoit,
an eminently forgettable forward.
The joint broke
out in snickers.
But in February
2007 the tide was surely about to turn. A former NBA
center named John Amaechi appeared on ESPN's
Outside the Lines to speak publicly about
his life as a closeted professional athlete. No,
Amaechi wasn't the first retired jock to come out.
But he was easily the most recognizable: Not only was
Amaechi a 6-foot-10, 270-pound mountain of a man, but
he had spent his career battling head-to-head against the
Shaquille O'Neals and Patrick Ewings and Tim Duncans
of the league -- without headgear to make him
men like Dave Kopay, Glenn Burke, Billy Bean, and Esera
Tuaolo undeniably stand as trailblazers in the battle for
gays to gain acceptance in professional sports, they
also could walk down any American street without being
noticed. Amaechi cannot. His size alone gives him
So when Amaechi
appeared on Outside the Lines, then shortly
thereafter released his autobiography, Man in the
Middle, it was hard not to think this would finally serve as
a gateway toward acceptance and equality. Amaechi had
been retired for just three years. About half of the
NBA's players had competed against him--known
him as a peer, embraced him as a professional, and
admired his feathery touch around the rim. Surely
their minds would be opened by John Amaechi, gay man.
Surely they would understand and accept.
Over this past
year, when American attitudes about gays have seemed to
shift dramatically in areas ranging from arts to politics to
education, it is a sad, harsh truth that within pro
sports Amaechi's actions accomplished
absolutely, positively, 100%...nothing.
Oh, there were
two or three players who spoke on Amaechi's behalf,
who expressed hope that more gay men would feel
comfortable being their true selves. Said Grant Hill,
now of the Phoenix Suns: "The fact that John has
done this, maybe it will give others the comfort or
confidence to come out as well, whether they are
playing or retiring."
words, however, were drowned out by a tidal wave of bigotry.
Famously, there was the rant of Tim Hardaway, the retired
All-Star guard who told a radio host, "If
[Amaechi] was on my team, I would really distance
myself from him because I don't think that's
right, and I don't think that he should be in
the locker room while we're in the locker
room." Worse, however, was the response of active
players, the men charged with opening their hearts --
and dressing quarters--to a gay peer.
forward Shavlik Randolph warned of being exposed to
"gayness," while teammate Steven Hunter
allowed that he'd play with a homosexual
"as long as he [didn't] make any advances
toward me." (Good news, Stevie: We've
seen your picture -- you've got nothing to worry
disheartening reaction came from Cleveland's LeBron
James, the new face of the league, Michael
Jordan's heir apparent. Had the so-called King
James expressed support for Amaechi, it would have been the
verbal equivalent of Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee
Wee Reese placing his arm around Jackie Robinson
during a 1947 road trip to Cincinnati -- a blatant
signal to peers and fans that the outsider deserves respect.
That gesture was so impactful that it is now depicted
in a bronze sculpture outside of KeySpan Park,
Brooklyn, N.Y.'s baseball stadium.
James was given
the opportunity to make an equally profound declaration:
to say bigotry had no place in his league. Instead,
James's words rang familiar. "With
teammates you have to be trustworthy, and if you're
gay and you're not admitting that you are, then
you are not trustworthy," he said. "So
that's like the number 1 thing as teammates--we
all trust each other. It's a trust factor,
honestly. A big trust factor."
prevented the NBA and other male professional leagues from
warming up to homosexuality isn't so much a steadfast
bigotry as it is a mind-numbing ignorance and
disinterest concerning all things progressive. To
reach the highest level of American athletics, players must
devote nearly all their time, energy, and passion to a
pursuit that has literally nothing to do with social
enlightenment. James, for example, seemingly can leap
as high as an oak tree and dunk blindfolded over a
15-foot barbed wire fence. Ask him to explain why he feels
comfortable driving an 8-mile-per-gallon Hummer (his
vehicle of choice) in these days of global warming and
alternative fuels, however, and he'll stare blankly
off into the distance.
there's a reason why the majority of professional
athletes either don't vote or are registered
Republicans; drive gas-guzzling, smog-producing
vehicles; and struggle to maintain their fortunes.
They're trained to "catch ball, throw
ball" -- not ponder issues with any sort of
depth or analysis.
Hence, those of
us anxiously anticipating the first openly gay male
athlete playing on a professional sports team need not hold
our breath. In baseball all has been silent since
former New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza presided over
an embarrassing 2002 press conference to declare
"I'm not gay." In football Esera
Tuaolo's revelation in the same year was met
with NFL-wide silence. As for the National Hockey League,
well, unless one wants to suffer nightly dental
realignments, he'd best keep his homosexuality
to himself. "It won't go over well,"
says one person close to the league.
"You'd get beat up pretty good."
Such is the
reality of the athletic world. Bring your game. Don't
bring your gayness.