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February 19, 2007

Gay in the NBA


When former NBA player John Amaechi announced he was gay two weeks ago, the question asked most often was whether the league was ready for an openly gay player. After two weeks, that question seems to have been answered: Probably not.


Amaechi, a center who played for three teams over the course of eight years in the league, made his revelation in a book called “Man in the Middle” (ESPN Books). He is the first former NBA player to come out, following baseball players Glenn Burke and Billy Bean and NFL players Dave Kopay, Esera Tuaolo and Roy Simmons.


While a few NBA players, as well as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, expressed support for Amaechi after his announcement, others (including superstar LeBron James) weren’t quite so progressive in their response. Philadelphia’s Shavlik Randolph summed up the reaction of many in the league when he said “as long as you don't bring your gayness on me, I’ll be fine.”


But an even further line was crossed about a week later, when former NBA star Tim Hardaway gave a radio interview in which he said he would never have played with a gay teammate, because “I hate gay people,” and “they shouldn’t be in the world, in the United States.” Hardaway was forced to apologize, and was removed by the league from participating in NBA All Star Weekend festivities. Indeed, not even conservative and/or Christian commentators would back him, as he’d come right out and admitted he “hated” a whole class of people.


On, user comments to a news story about Hardaway ran about 50/50 between those opposed to the former player, and those backing him, ripping him only for apologizing, bashing Amaechi for writing the book only to make a profit and blaming “political correctness” for anyone having a problem with Hardaway.


Is Amaechi “brave” for coming out the way he did? He is, in the sense that he is doing something that no one in his position ever has before, while opening himself up to criticism from those inclined to dislike such things. However, his actions certainly would have been even braver had he done so while still an active player or if he were a citizen of a country such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, in which a declaration may very well lead to death, as opposed to mere criticism.


LZ Granderson, a writer for ESPN the Magazine who is openly gay, accused Amaechi and others like him of “perpetuating homophobia” by staying in the closet as active players. While I believe it’s wrong to ever force anyone out of the closet, the fact is there are closeted professional athletes out there, and sooner or later we are going to see an active athlete either come out or be forced out.


Perhaps an active player will be forced out of the closet by his teammates or by a vengeful ex-lover. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Aldridge reported last week that rumors are rampant around the league that such a situation may be about to happen. Maybe someone with a cell phone camera and a Flickr account will spot a well-known athlete at a gay bar and post the photos online, something that seems to happen with heterosexual players just about every day.


Or, maybe a player will decide, under their own volition, to tell his teammates and/or the press that he’s gay. It will likely be a huge mess to start off and would likely not be good for team chemistry. For teammates to accept a gay player, it would probably have to be a superstar, like the ballplayer in Richard Greenberg’s Broadway play “Take Me Out.”


In fact, it would probably take another Jackie Robinson. When Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947, some teammates and opposing players refused to take the field with him. Robinson responded to the taunts by quickly establishing himself as a great player, to the point where African-American players were never again kept out of the game.


Six decades later, it will be a longer and even bumpier road for openly gay players. But the march of progress has slowly continued, and people like Billy Bean, Esera Tuaolo and John Amaechi have helped, ever so slightly, to smooth that road.


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