Bay Area Reporter
Copyright © 2006 Bay Area Reporter, a division of Benro Enterprises, Inc.

Taking it to the hoop

Enough about John Amaechi. Let's talk about the NBA.

And while we're on it, let's talk about the NFL, the NHL, and Major League Baseball. Let's talk about the insidious institutional indifference in American sports that makes what should be a simple and mundane act in the 21st century – coming out – seem more like a medieval flogging.

For the past week, from China to Chattanooga, sports sections, talk shows, and blogs have been abuzz with the news that a former NBA player was about to come out of the closet. It didn't take long for word to get out that the player was John Amaechi, whose sexual orientation was a quietly kept (but loosely held) secret during his playing days at Penn State and then later during his 301 games in a handful of seasons in the National Basketball Association.

Amaechi's relative obscurity and modest career scoring statistics would not have been enough to draw attention to his carefully orchestrated, widely publicized disclosure. (ESPN featured an interview with him over the weekend, has had articles about his coming out for days on its Web site, and is releasing his book Man in the Middle later this month.) The buzz emanated from the fact that he is the first NBA player to come out and just the sixth player from any of the four major U.S. professional sports, following baseball's Billy Bean and Glenn Burke; and football's David Kopay, Esera Tuaolo, and Roy Simmons.

All came out after their professional careers ended – and there's the rub.

Some journalists praised Amaechi's "courage" while others said an athlete's sexuality was a non-issue. Some players said they would be "uncomfortable" if they knew a teammate was gay, while others said they would not trust a teammate who did not disclose his sexuality. Some players said they would not mind a gay teammate as long as he played well and his being out did not affect the team, while others said they were cool with it as long as the player didn't "bring (his) gayness on me." NBA Commissioner David Stern, arguing that a player's sexuality was irrelevant, said, "We have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always 'Have you got game?' That's it, end of inquiry."

All of which is about one part truth to 10 parts denial.

» Kopay's coming out in the untested waters of the 1970s was courageous. The bar is higher now, thanks to the many athletes in many sports who have followed. By today's standard, Amaechi's coming out is not an "act of courage." It is commendable. It is even important. But that does not in and of itself make it an act of courage. True courage occurs at the time of greatest imminent risk; it cannot be postdated and handed out like a gold watch at a retirement dinner.

» Sexuality is never a non-issue. Especially not in the Wilt "I-Slept-With-10,000-Women" Chamberlain league. Certainly not in a league whose response to seemingly endless criminal charges against its players was to impose a dress code.

» Although many players talked about how having a gay teammate, open or closeted, would affect their lives, not one pondered what the impact of a hostile DADT environment had on the lives of those teammates. Not one suggested a proactive step to create a more accepting atmosphere.

» When LeBron James said he could not trust a player who did not disclose his sexuality, he did not say what he thought of the homophobia that stifles the candor he would prefer.

» Does a player who struggles with his game have less of a right to lead an open life than a player who plays a starring role? Is social equality truly dependent entirely on what he's done for the team lately?

» As far as the concern that players would want to be sure that having an openly gay teammate would not "affect" their teams, they should realize that some of their teammates are already negatively affected by the burden of closeted lives.

» Homophobic slurs are so ubiquitous in the NBA and in other sports circles as to numb the senses. Stern's attempt to sweep the issue of tolerance under the rug is insulting and counterproductive. "Faggot" is no less a cruel and offensive term than "nigger," yet the league which has been a trailblazer in racial opportunities for coaches and athletes alike tolerates the f-word to a daily degree that would make even an annual sensitivity session virtually useless.

Bigotry, whether over race or orientation, occurs not on a once-a-year basis but minute by minute throughout the days. Like a mushroom, bigotry feeds in darkness on crap. It must be exterminated not by the occasional glare of the media spotlight on a single athlete coming out after the fact, but by the brightness of articulated enlightenment and an absolute intolerance for intolerance the instant it is uttered.

I thought often the past week about an interview I did with Magic Johnson back in 1992 shortly after he underwent AIDS-awareness training. When he first disclosed his HIV status on television, he got a big cheer when he proudly stated he had gotten the virus through heterosexual activity.

Later, he was sheepish about that and realized how he had fed anti-gay sentiments by making such a major point of how he had contracted the virus.

I asked him what he thought the reaction would be from other players if he were gay and they knew it.

"It would be tough, I'm sure, because they've always got to shower [together] and that whole thing," he said. "They wouldn't know if the guy's coming on to them or not. I think they'd be apprehensive in terms of that side – the sexual side – of him. Maybe I'm wrong. These are the '90s."

Those were the '90s. These ain't – and its time that the NBA et al. realized it.

As for the media – well, I am sure everyone is feeling pretty good that it is only February but they've already done their quota of "gay stories" for the year. They've told us they personally have no issue with gays, and they've told us they think it is no big deal when an athlete comes out – but they haven't explained why, if it is truly such a non-issue, have they done so much hand-wringing and word-smithing over it.

But the story here is not about player comments, the timing of an outing, media comments, or public reactions. The real story is what happens in one person's heart, one person's life, the next time a mistake in practice is greeted with the word "faggot." Whether that story is told once or a hundred times, it will always have compelling components of conflict, courage and, I would hope, compassion.