Friday, February 09, 2007

Are NBA players merely shy about voicing their homophobia, or is it possible that they could really be ready to accept an openly gay teammate?


"We have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always, 'Have you got game?' That's it, end of inquiry."
--NBA Commissioner David Stern, responding to the disclosure by retired NBA center John Amaechi in his forthcoming autobiography, The Man in the Middle, that he's gay, quoted by Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon in his column today, "Sexuality Disclosed, Ignorance Exposed"

Apparently Amaechi's formal announcement will come Sunday on ESPN's Outside the Lines. Luckily, columnist Wilbon (probably best-known for the ESPN jabberfest Pardon the Interruption with fellow blabbermouth Tony Kornhiser) has been counting, and can tell us that Amaechi is "the sixth professional male athlete from one of the four major U.S. team sports to openly discuss his homosexuality." (Note that he's seen here in the uniform of the Houston Rockets, to whom he was traded in 2003, during his final NBA season, though he doesn't seem to have actually gotten into a game as a Rocket.)

But, Wilbon continues,
they've all been former athletes, not active ones, which speaks to how difficult it is for men in team sports to deal with an issue essentially every other workplace in America deals with continuously. The fact that a great number of heterosexual male athletes actually believe they don't already share locker rooms and showers with gay teammates is laughable.

Charles Barkley, who played in the NBA for 16 seasons, said yesterday: "It shouldn't be a big deal to anybody. I know I've played with gay players and against gay players and it just shouldn't surprise anybody or be any issue."

Actually, when I saw the head on Wilbon's column, I was all set to jump in fighting. And I'm sure the battle is still far from won, as witness the fact that no active-duty male major-sport pro is willing to come out.

But as Wilbon himself notes, "The anecdotal evidence indicates it would be a lot easier for a man to publicly state he's gay now than it would have been 15 years ago . . . or five years ago."

In addition to offering us NBA Commissioner David Stern's enlightened quote above, and the always-outspoken Charles Barkley's, he quotes one of the classiest guys in modern NBA history, current Boston Celtics coach Glenn "Doc" Rivers:
Doc Rivers [right], who coached Amaechi in Orlando, said: "It was brought up to me and you look and say: 'So what? Can he rebound? Can he shoot? Can he defend?' " Rivers then noted Amaechi's defensive shortcomings. "But with everything else, he was great."

"We're all insensitive at times," Rivers said. "There's no taboo subject in the locker room. I think if he would have come out [while an active player] they would have gotten on him jokingly. And I actually think that when guys do come out, when that day happens, it will make it easier."

And he quotes still-active, though injury-plagued, veteran Orlando Magic guard Grant Hill saying, "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 retired."

Of course, these are all pretty "with it" people. What kind of surprises me is that Wilbon's negative examples are, well, not at all what I would have expected:

* "The 76ers' Shavlik Randolph, who likes to throw his religious beliefs in everybody's face, is quoted as telling reporters, 'As long as you don't bring your gayness on me, I'm fine.'"

* "And Steven Hunter of the 76ers said: 'As long as he don't make any advances toward me, I'm fine with it. As long as he came to play basketball like a man and conducted himself as a good person, I'd be fine with it.'"

* And then there's superstar Cavs' forward LeBron James:
A lot will be made over the comments of LeBron James, who is quoted as saying: "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. So that's like the number one thing as teammates . . . we all trust each other. You've heard of the in-room locker room code. What happens in the locker room stays there. It's a trust factor."

My first reaction to LeBron's ramblings is that the person who needs to feel the trust is the person in the room who feels he's at risk by talking openly of something that's been taboo in locker rooms since the beginning of time. Then again, James, because of who he is, is asked most every day about anything and everything NBA-related. And while his public reaction wasn't as dumb, stupid and homophobic as that of Randolph and Hunter, it's not particularly enlightened.

Of course, talk is cheap. And I don't suppose NBA players are likely to be daft enough to go on the record in the year 2007 spewing rabid homophobia. Still, this sure isn't the kind of talk I would have expected. "I'm fine"? "I'd be fine with it"? And LeBron saying he wouldn't trust a teammate who didn't trust his teammates enough to be honest with them? Wilbon makes a perfectly valid point about the trust issue, but this still isn't the kind of mindless bigotry I would have expected.


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