The rest of the male professional sports landscape in the U.S. is hardly a Castro Street conga line. The list of athletes who have come out of the closet can be checked off on one hand: former National Football League players Dave Kopay, Roy Simmons and Esera Tuaolo; and former Major League Baseball players Billy Bean and Glenn Burke. These men, like Amaechi, revealed their homosexuality after retirement. No male athlete has done so while in uniform.
Judging by the response of the NBA, Amaechi’s decision to conceal his sexuality was all too understandable. Despite all the headlines his announcement has launched, there was still no mention of it on the NBA’s official website.
With such notable exceptions as New York Knicks Coach Isiah Thomas and Amaechi’s former teammate, Grant Hill, the reaction of NBA players has been chilly. The most repellent statement came from retired guard Tim Hardaway. Hardaway who was in Las Vegas, representing the league’s community service wing NBA Cares (you just can’t make this stuff up), called into the land of understanding that is Sports Radio last week and said, “I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people.” When asked how he would interact with a gay teammate, he said that “first of all, I wouldn’t want him on my team. And second of all, if he was on my team, I would … really distance myself from him.”
LeBron James, the current face of the NBA, said: “You take showers together, you’re on the bus, you talk about things. With teammates, you have to be trustworthy. If you’re gay and you’re not admitting that you are, you’re not trustworthy. It’s the locker room code.” The most revealing part of James’ statement is his reference to the “locker room code.” The problem, he tells us, is that in the close-knit, locker room barracks, a gay player would upset the delicate balance of trust and unity necessary for success.
Forget for a moment that most locker rooms today more closely resemble a suite at the Waldorf than Stalag 17: They are where players wear fluffy robes and play video games on flat-screen monitors; they’re not exactly war bunkers. Forget that this same argument was used to deny African Americans a place in pre-1940 locker rooms. Forget that the code plays into the stereotype that a gay man in a locker room is like a kid with a sweet tooth in a candy store.
The main problem with making “the locker room code” the issue, however, is that homophobia extends far beyond where pro athletes primp and disrobe. As Jeff Miller wrote last week in the Orange County Register: “For a society that loves to celebrate its remarkable progress, we remain pathetically stalled in yesterday in so many ways. The fact [that the Amaechi] story was received by many like a space alien would be at 7-Eleven says way too much.”
The reason that active players don’t come out of the closet is the price they would have to pay. To be a pro basketball star – or a pro athlete, for that matter – is to have your lottery ticket punched. There is fame, adulation and the material means to take family and friends along for the ride. When the choice becomes concealment or risking all that comes with professional athletics, it has historically been no choice at all. As Amaechi explained: “It’s terrifying. These people are looked at as stars, as NBA players. Any change to that would be psychologically, emotionally and financially devastating.”
This reality is why Amaechi seeks to do more than attack homophobic attitudes in pro leagues. “I’m not doing this to change the NBA,” he said. “I’m doing this for the high school quarterback who is thinking about sticking his head in a noose because he can’t come to grips with the fact he’s gay.” This is not an empty statement. According to one government report, gays and lesbians may account for up to 30% of all teenage suicides.
Amaechi says he has received many death threats since he came out, a stark reminder of something he told columnist Dave Kindred of the Sporting News several years ago: “If I die, the last thing I want people to say on my tombstone is that I put a ball through a hole.”
With considerable flair, that goal has now been achieved.
Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming book: “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing [email protected].
Contact him at [email protected].
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #17 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Talking Sports With Legendary New York Times Sports Columnist Robert Lipsyte – We chat about Lipsyte’s amazing career and some of the athletes he covered and got to know well, like Muhammad Ali, as well as his relationships with fellow sports journalists like Bob Costas and Howard Cosell.
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Episode #16 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Andrew Maraniss: Outstanding Author of Books That Focus On the Intersection of Sports, History and Social Justice.
Episode #15 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Talking Sports Psychology with Dr. Tim Rice. We discuss the growth of sports psychology at all levels, the positive impact that a number of high profile athletes have had by opening up, and the importance of everyone involved in sports caring for the whole athlete, mind and body.
Episode #14 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Making Sense of the Injury Pandemic in Major League Baseball – Gary McCoy is a strength, conditioning and high performance coach who has worked with several Major League Baseball organizations.
Episode #13 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Conversation With Long-Time MLB Exec Dan Evans About What’s Right With Baseball and What Could Be Better – Evans is a former general manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers and is currently a consultant for Go the Distance Baseball, which owns the Field of Dreams movie site.
Episode #12 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Fun Chat With Dan Gutman, Author of the Baseball Card Adventure Series for Kids
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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Ken Reed’s Author Page on Amazon