That there are many gay high-profile athletes currently participating in professional sports is seemingly an article of faith amongst anyone that covers the games. I have heard it said many times by those with the access to know that in any team sport you could compile an all-star team of gay players that would easily crush any other on the basis of their abilities. And yet to this date, no major team sport pro athlete has come out while in the middle of his career. Further, when former Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz role player John Amaechi disclosed last week that he was gay, it was extensively covered and speculated upon in major news outlets from ESPN to the New York Times. I’m happy for Amaechi’s admission, but slightly agog that this constitutes a major story. Fifteen years after Bill Clinton brought the topic of gays serving openly in the military to the fore of American public consciousness, the 12th man on an NBA bench can startle us with such a relatively mundane disclosure? Progress of any kind in the direction of tolerance is a wonderful thing, but my own sense of the response in this instance is that it undersells the readiness of both professional athletes and fans to accept such a development without much more than a shrug.
Let us begin with the question of whether or not Amaechi’s disclosure is remotely surprising? Given the emergence of openly gay individuals in every facet of public life ranging from politics to the clergy, it seems peculiar to posit that those who have spent an entire lifetime engaged in the most physically and emotionally intimate rituals of same-sex bonding would be somehow without gay individuals in their ranks. However, Brooklyn Rai film criticl, New School professor and seasoned sports observer David N. Meyer ruefully perceives the rationale which has left gay athletes in the closet when other high-profile professionals have long since been liberated from this indignation. According to Meyer, certain aspects of locker room ritual and comportment are massively destabilized in a psychological sense by the open acknowledgment of homosexuality: “It's clear that in the locker room American manhood gets codified...and all that closeted horseplay that so defines the locker room would be quite laden if it were recognized for what it is: 1) foreplay and 2) the ignored catharsis of the very forbidden urges that the gay athlete brings to light. And if everyone suddenly understands their own motives, then their identity is threatened. And, pardon me, if a cocksucker can hit as hard as Mike Singletary, or dunk like Mike, then suddenly the parameters/definitions of manly men via athletics are chucked out the window. If this turns out to be true, then what makes a man a man? And that threat will never leave athletics.”
There is no doubt real truth in Meyer’s sad lament, although I personally take amore optimistic view of the adaptability of professional sports culture. The locker room of a major sports franchise is nearly always a fascinating and complex crosscurrent of racial and cultural identities. The need to synthesize these elements into a functioning unit is the foremost imperative of any successful franchise. When a team unravels due to internal tensions it need not require the impetus of a teammate admitting he’s gay. Most of the time, full-scale insurrection can be achieved by a simple argument between two players over whether to blast Toby Keith or Ludacris at the maximum possible volume two hours before game time. Conversely, the better managed and more seamless organizations somehow tie together the speed-addled Romanowski-style metalheads with the clean-cut morality mavens and the would-be gansta rappers. No less an “old school” roughneck and Bobby Knight acolyte than Isiah Thomas seemed to perceive this imperative with complete lucidity in the aftermath of the Amaechi disclosure. Asked if such a development would adversely affect his locker room, he let it be known that he would damn well let it do no such thing. "We're a diverse society and we preach acceptance," said Thomas, "No matter what your sexual preference may be, there's acceptance and a tolerance level that should be accepted everywhere. No one should be excluded."
This is pretty enlightened discourse from the former keystone of Detroit Piston teams who used to take pride in the same sort of demolition via machismo which characterized the 1985 Bears or a prime Roberto Duran. If we’re getting this kind of talk from the “Bad Boys,” how far off can we be from a full-scale shrugging acceptance of the presence of gay professional athletes? Not so fast, says Meyer. “Remember, Karl Malone didn't even want to play on the same court as Magic; and it wasn't HIV he was a'scared of catching,” he points out.
And sadly, for every promising development along the lines of Isiah’s call for tolerance, some knucklehead pops up like clockwork to buttress anxieties like those expressed by Meyer. This past week, in response to Amaechi’s proclamation, former NBA star Tim Hardaway elevated himself to the ranks of all time inexcusable dunces by stating: “I hate gay people… If you have 12 other ballplayers in your locker room that's upset and can't concentrate and always worried about him in the locker room or on the court or whatever, it's going to be hard for your teammates to win and accept him as a teammate."
Hardaway is an imbecile and a fool and can be easily dismissed as such, but the question is how much real currency does a blighted jackass like this really have in your average locker room, and how many of them really exist? The way to find out, and the way I suspect we eventually will, is to have a true incarnate superstar confess to being gay at the apex of his career. One can better understand the guardedness of a player like Amaechi, whose skills rendered him a marginal prospect in the first place, but what exactly would the Cleveland Cavaliers or Cincinnati Bengals do if LeBron James or Carson Palmer (hypothetically, off the top of my head) were to suddenly announce they were gay? Would they cut them and consign their historically woe-begotten franchises to still greater miseries? Allow them to go to a different team without compensation and light up the scoreboards there? It seems to me that this would never occur, and if it did it would become as infamous and pathetic as failure of, say, the University of Kentucky basketball team or the Washington Redskins to integrate until the world had blithely passed them by. Whatever lingering prejudices, no General Manager or team owner wants this legacy.
And I think this will happen, sooner than we think. For one thing, these are privileged and powerful individuals with a disinclination towards not getting their way. Living a closeted life of shamed secrecy is no picnic for anyone, but it must be outright galling to those sports world superstars accustomed to being treated and thinking of themselves as something as something close to deities. The potential downside of coming out is clear enough, but the rare potential in it to be remembered as someone who transcended sports while excelling at the highest level exists as well. Think of the company that this first courageous team sport athlete will eventually, in his lifetime, keep: Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammed Ali. This is a kind of Mount Rushmore of progressive achievement, not a small thing in either practical or symbolic terms. No less a marketing savant than Dallas Mavericks manchild owner Mark Cuban sees dollar signs at the very thought of it: “If you're a player who happens to be gay and you want to be incredibly rich, then you should come out, because it would be the best thing that ever happened to you from a marketing and an endorsement perspective. You would be an absolute hero to more Americans than you can ever possibly be as an athlete, and that'll put money in your pocket."
Finally, an interesting sidelight: what do gay sports fans think of all this? Jim O’Connor, a professor at Parsons School of Design and inveterate baseball junkie (who's written eloquently about the paradoxes inherent in the experience of the gay sports fan) falls closer to the side of much ado about nothing: “Amaechi says (in the NY Times on Feb. 2), ‘I know that there are gay players in the league, and they are in a lot of professional sports.’ Every player who comes out, or every sympathetic commentator, league spokesperson, whatever, says the same thing. If there were time, I think we could find twenty quotes like this in connection with all team sports. So, it appears that everyone (certainly including players) knows there are gay active players, and presumably knows who they are. Given that, the idea that a locker room would be disrupted or destabilized by the presence of gay players seems odd, except that there's a kind of conspiracy of the closet, allowing all to behave as if there's nothing wrong — an unacknowledged family secret.”
Despite the revolting presence of the Tim Hardaways of the world, this view strikes me as the most accurate. Perhaps I am merely being Pollyannaish, but I believe that if professional sports is the final venue for achieving acceptance of gays in the workplace, than we are even closer to accomplishing this vital goal than would have seemed remotely plausible even twenty years ago. I am just only excited to see what great player, and great man, is going to step out of the shadows and lead us the rest of the way there.