Bringing Your Gayness on the NBA
Former NBA player John Amaechi revealed this week that he is gay, becoming the first NBA player (active or retired) to come out of the closet. While some have applauded Amaechi’s decision to come out, most of the sports world has greeted the news with a yawn. I think it’s great that Amaechi has gone public, but my guess is that within two weeks most of the world will have forgotten the sexual orientation of a less-than-mediocre NBA player who last played in 2003.
The more interesting story here is not simply that Amaechi has come out, but rather the reaction of the rest of the league. A few players and coaches have openly supported Amaechi—including Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, former Amaechi coach
Several others, however, have been less kind. Take Shavlik Randolph (a Duke grad, FWIW) of the 76ers: "As long as you don't bring your gayness on me I'm fine. . . . As far as business-wise, I'm sure I could play with him. But I think it would create a little awkwardness in the locker room." Or the 76ers Steven Hunter: “For real? He's gay for real? . . . Nowadays it's proven that people can live double lives. I watch a lot of TV, so I see a lot of sick perverted stuff about married men running around with gay guys and all types of foolishness.” And then there’s Lebron, who is in some respects the NBA’s most important and visible player: “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 problem is not so much that these players made these comments—athletes live in a macho, intolerant world, so macho, intolerant words are hardly a surprise. No, my problem is that, aside from a few “tsk, tsks” in the media, these players have been subject to zero disciplinary action. No private or public reprimand, no fines, no required retractions of the quotes, no teammates or coaches calling out Randolph or Hunter for their blatantly stupid comments.
And don’t think for a second that the NBA is above punishing athletes for their words. Why just this very week the Bulls Tyrus Thomas said the following about participating in the NBA dunk contest: "I'm just into the free money. That's it. I'll just do whatever when I get out there." The Bulls stated that the comments were "a poor reflection on Tyrus individually and a poor reflection on the Bulls organization," and then fined Thomas $10,000 and required him to make a public apology. Players are also often fined for things such as criticizing officials.
So, what we’ve learned here is that admitting that you play basketball for money is a punishable offense, but homophobic comments are not. Not exactly a surprise, then, that no active player has come out of the closet, even though statistically it is almost guaranteed that several NBA players are gay (and Amaechi hints at such, but doesn’t reveal names).
It is no great revelation to say that it will be incredibly difficult for an active athlete to come out of the closet. But until coaches and management mandate changes in locker room culture, it will be nearly impossible. NBA Commissioner David Stern could have pushed this process forward by using this opportunity to make clear that the NBA will not tolerate homophobia. Instead, Stern cowardly commented that "[w]e have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always, 'Have you got game?' That's it, end of inquiry." The 76ers organization has been silent regarding Randolph’s and Hunter’s comments.
The changes necessary for sports to be welcoming of a gay athlete are simply not going to come from the players—they must come from the top down. Jackie Robinson did not break into the Major Leagues because that was what the players wanted. Rather, the Dodgers owner, Branch Rickey, decided that he wanted Robinson on his team (for moral and business reasons), and his players, and opponents, would just have to live with it.
So again, good for Amaechi, but shame on (most of) the coaches, executives, owners, and Commissioner for not taking a strong stance on this issue. I’m never really sure if the sports world leads the way on certain social issues, or if it is merely a reflection of society’s current stance on such issues. But I do know that when a player is brave enough to play NBA basketball as an openly gay athlete, it will be an important milestone, both for the gay community and society generally. Unfortunately, until those at the top have the courage to forbid intolerance throughout the league, I doubt a player from the bottom will have the courage to reveal his true self.