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Posted at 10:59 AM ET, 08/21/2008

Amaechi, Kobe and Being Uncomfortable

John Amaechi's name bubbled up into the U.S. sports blogscape earlier this week, after he told a U.S. reporter that his only Olympic meeting with Kobe Bryant "didn't go well." I had actually asked Amaechi if we could chat last week, but we didn't sit down until yesterday, when those three words had already sparked Internet debate about whether Kobe was a homophobe. Sigh.

So let's get this out of the way up front: the actual "incident," which Amaechi had already explicitly described on his blog nearly two weeks ago, involved Kobe seeing Amaechi through the window of the team bus as the U.S. team headed towards the media center for their introductory press conference. According to Amaechi, Kobe then mouthed the words "what the [bleep]?"

"I was lip reading," Amaechi told me. "Not that it's one of my particular talents, but some things you can tell."

So obviously, this was not that big a deal, in the grand scheme of things, as Amaechi readily acknowledged.

"Now what's interesting about this, is once it went into the mainstream press, how people have responded to it, as if I'm accusing Kobe of being a homophobe, which I'm not," Amaechi said in a video follow-up this week. "I'm simply saying that some very basic lip reading meant that I didn't think that he or anybody else who kind of tweaked the curtains on that bus was particularly happy to see me, and its not like I expect them to be...."

"I just think it got blown a little bit out of proportion. I will say though, I always tell my friend Jeff never to read the comments that are left on blogs, because they're devastating a lot. And I made the mistake of reading a couple of the comments left on one of the basketball-type web sites [this one, I'm guessing], and they were brutal. I mean, they really were. But anyway, lesson learned, once again: don't read the comments."

So with that pretty well put to bed, I still talked to John about gay Olympians, George W. Bush, Craig Sager, DeShawn Stevenson and the responsibility of the high-profile athlete. Excerpts:

I read somewhere that there's maybe five or six Olympic athletes here who are out?

There's somewhere between six and 11 out, depending on whose story you read, and there's only one man, as far as I know.

There's got to be exponentially more [who aren't out].

Of course.

I wouldn't think the pressures that might exist in the NBA would exist in Olympic sports.

Why not? Sports are a distilled version of what happens in society as a whole. They aren't separate in any way. They exist under many of the same rules, which are suspended during games only. I think that athletes suffer the same pressures as 16-year old girls in high school, and 20-year old men moving into the workplace. They suffer the same pressures as these every-day folk do when it comes to being authentic and how other people respond.

And don't forget, some of the people who are GLBT in the Olympics are people who, within their country, are criminals if they admit that, if they tell people that. I think there's enough pressure trying to carry the burden of the weight of your country on your shoulders to win a medal without having to worry about the fact that people will clap for you while you stand on the podium and then undermine you, possibly even try to hurt you, one way or another, when you step off.

Did you hear about the two teammates on the handball team? The ones that are going out? Does that surprise you at all, that they would be out and dating?

No. Not really. I mean, it does highlight the fact that the chances of having gay people on teams, it's not as minuscule as people think. But it doesn't surprise me. I mean, it's not easier for women than it is for men, because that's a common misconception. But certainly the average Joe--usually Joe--on the street imagines it to be easier. So they have less of a problem with female homosexuals, which is ludicrous.

It's ludicrous that the average male feels that way?

It's ludicrous that they would have a different feeling about women than they would about men, as if Leviticus only counts for one gender.

I think everyone obviously realizes that there are a lot more athletes who are gay than who are actually out, but I would think it would be the same thing with broadcasters, because there aren't really that many....

Oh please. This room is teeming with gay folk. I mean, I don't know currently at the moment, but yes, of course....I mean, they're still dealing with the same audience, people who have a set of expectations. And whether we like it or not, people tend to conform with the expectations of the world outside.

So athletes, there's a reason why they tend not to worry about academic pursuits on the whole. There's a reason why they tend to concern themselves with the trappings of fame and celebrity, and cars and girls and jewels: because it's what people want, it's what people expect. They don't want erudite, worldly, outspoken people, however much they say they do. It's not actually what they expect.

And with broadcasters it's the same: they want butch. They want a guy that they could have a beer with without a fear that he might pat their ass and mean something different. Because that's how naive and stupid people are, as I would say to every other straight person. Straight people really shouldn't flatter themselves so much

But one of the things you wrote on the blog is that you've been received great by all the other broadcasters here, so there's not kind of that....

Oh God no. It's a fairly well-evolved group that we have here. The only sportscasters I've interacted with from America are the basketball ones, who knew me in a previous life, if you like, and have been very nice indeed. And all the broadcasters around me, the Swedes on one side, we've got on the other side the whole French group, and they've been wonderful.

So do you have any good Craig Sager stories?

He's a good man. What I love is the fact that every time he sees me he offers to buy me beer. Normally straight men don't try to get me drunk.

Do you accept?

No. I was actually still working, so I couldn't. Otherwise, I absolutely would.

He told me he's got a fetish for Bud Light and blondes.

Bud Light and blondes? Yeah. I'm probably not with him on either of those.

So the political stuff? You sort of were critical of Bush on the blog.

I'm hugely critical of him. He's a moron. This is nothing revolutionary.

But [the BBC is] ok with you saying that?

It's not their job to decide, really. I'm a BBC broadcaster for 20 days of the year, 20 days every four years actually. I am an individual--a psychologist, a person of good conscience--the rest of the time. It's not their job to decide on those things. Plus, haven't lots of people said he's a bit of an idiot?

Probably. I think if I actually said that I thought Bush was a moron, my employer would not like that.

But it's also a little different because I'm not a broadcaster. I am broadcasting, but I'm not a broadcaster.

So why do you think he's a moron?

Let me see. There are certain criteria to lead that are incredibly important. Not the ability to know everything, but the ability to bring people around you who enhance your weaknesses, the ability to take advice even when you don't like it, the ability to be humble. These things are all seemingly lacking from his presidency.

I am not one of these Richard Dawkins-style atheists. I'm not an atheist. I don't think about that area much. However, one of the things I did previously think was important, was that if you had a person of faith in office--I don't think it's necessary in any way--but if you did have that, I thought one of the promises of that would be that by definition they knew there was someone above them who did know everything, and therefore by definition they would be humble, because they would know absolutely that they did not.

And instead, this person of faith--President Bush--has come into office and turned that all around, and simply made it so that his word IS the word of God, and he is infallible. And I think that's possibly one of the most dangerous things in the world.

So with the whole politics thing, obviously the Redeem Team guys are some of the most high-profile athletes in the entire Olympics. Would you have hoped that they would have spoken out on political issues?

I think it would be important. You've read the blog, right? I mean, I think that one of the blogs that I wrote said--and this is what I believe--that if you would be a God, even if it is just a God of the stadium, then you should perform a miracle every once in a while.

And that doesn't mean a triple salchow, it doesn't mean a perfect vault, it doesn't mean a game-winning shot. It means, occasionally, if you are a God, you do something that affects the world. And I don't see that from any athletes--whether it be the Dream Team or the gymnasts or somebody else--from any country.

And I think it's disappointing, because I think even now, if Michael Jordan stood up and said, 'You know what, let's really do something about the inequity of education in America,' then I think it would change.

Doesn't that seem crazy though? I mean, if that's true, doesn't that seem crazy that Michael Jordan would have that power just from being able to....

Did we not already know that? And this would account for most of the Dream Team, Tiger Woods, a lot of German, French, British athletes as well. If you have people that can force people, families, who have almost nothing, to pay 150 pounds or dollars for shoes, then what can't they achieve? Politicians can't get 150 pounds out of families with nothing. Politicians have to give families with nothing stuff for them to believe in them. These people are so powerful that they make these families who have nothing buy stuff from them.

So yeah, I think they have the kind of power to change the world. I think it's an awesome responsibility, and I can see why people wouldn't want that. However, if you're a God, every once in a while you've got to show it.

So if you saw Kobe would you say anything to him about this?

No. I don't have a relationship with him. It's not like/dislike; I don't have a relationship with him. I wish he, and frankly anyone else in that position--Phelps, the Chinese gymnastics team, although they would of course be in far more peril if they spoke up--but I wish these people would do something, yeah.

It doesn't have to be huge. I'm not talking about using the Olympics, embarrassing people, taking your medals and throwing them to the ground. I'm talking about publicly accepting these awards that you've earned, cherishing the moment, cherishing the fact that Chinese people here are just amazing, but tactfully saying, 'I've got this medal but I wish along with this that there was improvements in this and this.' That's all you have to do. Small, tiny steps.

What about the thing with you and the bus, would you say anything about that?

I don't know what's the point, at this point. I mean, from their perspective, there are several reasons they can say that I am ignorable. One, I was an average NBA player, so why would they talk to me? Two, I'm in a slightly different mold than most NBA players, regardless of sexual orientation. And three, sexual orientation. There's lots of reasons why they wouldn't have anything to do with me, really.

And if Kobe Bryant was the psychologist in the cubicle next to me, I can't say that we'd necessarily be friends in that environment either. So it's not fair, there's no fracas there. We don't know each other. It just was uncomfortable for me. It's uncomfortable to be scrutinized for just one area of life. I'm a jerk for so many different reasons. I'm aware of that. I have many, many, many, MANY flaws. But who I am intrinsically is not a reason to be despised, I don't think.

Did you play in Utah with DeShawn Stevenson?

Oh yeah.

What was he like?

He was a good man. I mean, young, slightly crazy, but a good man. One of the things I was blessed with in the NBA is the fact that my teammates everywhere were really great....Karl Malone is one of the people that has actually spoken to me since February. He was very supportive, he and his wife both. He's a black cowboy, and he's the poster boy for the NRA, and we're on polar opposites in every respect of the political spectrum. However, he's a genuine and authentic person, and that's all it takes to have a friendship, I think.

The other thing that was interesting that you blogged about is that you're not really a sports fan.

I'm not a sports fan. I'm filled up to the brim with sports right now. That's why I only do Olympics. I need three-and-a-half years in between to get myself back ready. I mean, it's not insulting. I watch diving and I watch swimming and I watch gymnastics.


Because visually it's more appealing. And I watch the basketball, because it's my job. But beyond that I'm just not that interested. And to be honest, even if it was diving and gymnastics and whatever else, I wouldn't watch it normally, it's just that it's on television 24-7, so I'm inundated.

And I don't hate it, I've got no kind of Freudian problem with sports or anything, it's just that I have a real job now. There are very few jobs outside of sports where people expect you to be saturated with it all your life, and when you retire still to be invested in it.

By  |  10:59 AM ET, 08/21/2008

Categories:  Olympics, Olympics

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