Homosexuality in Sports

OK, I admit it. I wrote this one awhile ago. But I’m going to post it anyway. The story is a little out of date but will always be relevant.

In the wake of ex-NBA player John Amaechi announcing that he is gay, Tim Hardaway said some things that he shouldn’t have. His comments were hateful, ignorant and biting.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, here’s a clip:

For one of the great point guards of the game, the punishment came swiftly and decisively. Hardaway was promptly fired from his job as an NBA analyst, banned from the All-Star Game in Vegas, and was suddenly in everybody’s bad books. Hardaway’s reputation will forever be tarnished. Decades and decades of hard work, of being an outstanding player and teammate, and earning respect for his work as an NBA analyst after his playing career; all of this was thrown away in a 2 minute homophobic rant.

NBA players have always and will continue to censor their words. They are often afraid to speak what is truly in their hearts and minds, afraid of controversial comments that will create a public backlash and could have some severe consequences. What happened to Tim Hardaway will only make that fear more palpable.

Just like politicians and celebrities, athletes feel a lot of pressure to watch what they say. In this new technological age, gossip can spread even faster. In the same way that politicians will always “say the right thing” to clamor for votes; and celebrities will rarely say anything controversial so as not to jeopardize future movie roles; athletes must also bite their tongues in the interest of self-preservation. Instead of votes or movie roles, athletes watch what they say so as to stay on the good side of the media, of the fans, of the coaching and management staff, and last but not least on contracts and endorsement deals. I am definitely not insinuating that the bulk of NBA athletes agree with Tim Hardaway’s comments, although there are likely a few. I am simply saying that one has to take the comments of NBA players with a grain of salt, because you can never be sure what is driving and motivating them.

Tiger Woods is a good example. He is Nike’s dream client. A recognizable face, an astonishing game, intensity and charisma on the golf course, and interviews that will make you fall asleep. If you watch these interviews, he usually will say some variation of the same thing every single time. Even when faced with tough questions that may result in some controversy, he will cleverly sidestep it in order to not take a side. This is what Nike wants. Controversial comments such as Hardaway’s alienate large segments of the public. Nike wants Tiger to stay neutral so as not to alienate anybody, hence selling more products. Tiger feels that if he helps Nike sell more products, then they are more likely to keep him as a client. See how it works?

This is why for all of the politically correct, seemingly tolerant, and accepting comments by NBA players in the wake of Amaechi’s surprise announcement; one has to wonder if some of these players are only thinking about the bottom line. If they are carefully weighing their words.

Let me make myself clear once again. In no way am I saying that all of the lovey dovey talk is a hoax. I truly believe that many NBA players would openly accept a gay teammate, especially those who come from large, diverse cosmopolitan cities where differences are celebrated and embraced. Amaechi has been quoted as saying that he thinks a city like Toronto would openly accept a gay NBA player. I read a very touching and heartwarming story about Andrei Kirilenko (still playing for the Jazz), who was teammates with Amaechi when this story happened.

It was New Years Eve, and Andrei was hosting a party. Clearly sensing something in Amaechi that others may not have, he sent him a text message that Amaechi later said “brought tears to his eyes”. The message read “Please come, John. You are welcome to bring your partner, if you have one, someone special to you. Who it is makes no difference to me.” Amaechi already had plans and couldn’t make it, but he still sent Andrei a $500 bottle of champagne for his kind gesture. I truly believe that there are many other current NBA players whose reaction would mirror Andrei’s.

Conversely, I also feel that there would be many NBA players whose reactions would be more like Hardaway’s than Kirilenko’s. The US (and Canada) still has a lot to work on in terms of accepting people who are different. Racism and homophobia continue to be chronic problems in many parts of both countries. Moreover, the NBA locker room (not that I’ve ever been in one) is likely a place of alpha-male machismo. Not exactly the ideal environment for a gay person to co-exist.

Amaechi was not a superstar. He never won a ring, and he was never the top player on his team. But he has taught us something. He has taught us that all types of people play this game. And that even in modern society, there still exists some pressure among NBA players to hide any sort of gay or effeminate behaviour (otherwise Amaechi would have come out while still in the league).

And Hardaway’s words have also taught us something. They have taught us that we have a long way to go in our society towards respect and tolerance. They also present a conundrum. If NBA players were hesitant to appear homophobic in the public eye before Hardaway’s comments, then they must be seriously scared now in the post-Hardaway world. So therefore it is near impossible to gauge how an openly gay NBA player would be accepted if every NBA player now just spouts stock answers.

To be honest, I truly don’t see a current NBA player coming out of the closet in the near future. Don’t bet on it happening. There is no doubt in my mind that a gay man concealing his sexuality among a group of alpha males could possibly be morally destructive. Therefore, I would sincerely hope that a gay NBA player would have the courage and conviction to come out while still in the league. And while I’m hoping, let’s hope to see him accepted by his teammates for who he is.

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