Sexuality Disclosed, Ignorance Exposed

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, February 9, 2007

Just as it would be a relief to arrive at the place in time when the color of the coaches in the Super Bowl matters not one bit, it would be fabulous to reach the day when a male athlete in a team sport doesn't have to worry about the reaction of declaring his homosexuality.

But that day isn't here just yet, as we found out this week now that John Amaechi has become the first former NBA player to publicly say he's gay. The reaction to Amaechi's announcement in advance of his soon-to-be-released autobiography, "Man in the Middle," is all over the place, from appropriate indifference to utterances that border on homophobic to, well, stock ignorance.

NBA Commissioner David Stern, in trying to make plain that a player's sexuality simply isn't important, said: "We have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always, 'Have you got game.' That's it, end of inquiry."

While we knew Stern's approach would be enlightened, the diversity of his league is reflected in the diversity of opinion we've been hearing from players throughout the NBA, from the sensible to the idiotic. For instance, the 76ers' Shavlik Randolph, who likes to throw his religious beliefs in everybody's face, is quoted as telling reporters, "As long as you don't bring your gayness on me, I'm fine." And Steven Hunter of the 76ers said: "As long as he don't make any advances toward me, I'm fine with it. As long as he came to play basketball like a man and conducted himself as a good person, I'd be fine with it."

So clearly, not everybody is in line with Stern's thinking, which is why it's so difficult for male athletes in team sports to say they're gay. No, Amaechi isn't the first such athlete to go public. In fact, he's the sixth professional male athlete from one of the four major U.S. team sports to openly discuss his homosexuality.

But they've all been former athletes, not active ones, which speaks to how difficult it is for men in team sports to deal with an issue essentially every other workplace in America deals with continuously. The fact that a great number of heterosexual male athletes actually believe they don't already share locker rooms and showers with gay teammates is laughable.

Charles Barkley, who played in the NBA for 16 seasons, said yesterday: "It shouldn't be a big deal to anybody. I know I've played with gay players and against gay players and it just shouldn't surprise anybody or be any issue."

Of course, Barkley's right. And the anecdotal evidence indicates it would be a lot easier for a man to publicly state he's gay now than it would have been 15 years ago . . . or five years ago. Setting aside the ignorance of folks such as Randolph -- and he certainly is not alone -- most reaction in the NBA has been not only reasoned, it's been supportive. Doc Rivers, who coached Amaechi in Orlando, said: "It was brought up to me and you look and say: 'So what? Can he rebound? Can he shoot? Can he defend?' " Rivers then noted Amaechi's defensive shortcomings. "But with everything else, he was great."

"We're all insensitive at times," Rivers said. "There's no taboo subject in the locker room. I think if he would have come out [while an active player] they would have gotten on him jokingly. And I actually think that when guys do come out, when that day happens, it will make it easier."

Grant Hill said, "The fact that John has done this, maybe it will give others the comfort or confidence to come out as well, whether they are playing or retired."

We're going to find out in the coming days -- the book will be released on Wednesday -- just how tolerant players and coaches were among those who knew. Amaechi describes, reportedly in detail, just how difficult it was to deal with homophobia, and as Orlando's Pat Garrity said: "I think that's true if you're playing basketball or in an office job. That's just how the world is right now."

And it's fair to wonder how long the culture of the male locker room is going to be that way. A lot will be made over the comments of LeBron James, who is quoted as saying: "With teammates you have to be trustworthy, and if you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy. So that's like the number one thing as teammates . . . we all trust each other. You've heard of the in-room locker room code. What happens in the locker room stays there. It's a trust factor."

My first reaction to LeBron's ramblings is that the person who needs to feel the trust is the person in the room who feels he's at risk by talking openly of something that's been taboo in locker rooms since the beginning of time. Then again, James, because of who he is, is asked most every day about anything and everything NBA-related. And while his public reaction wasn't as dumb, stupid and homophobic as that of Randolph and Hunter, it's not particularly enlightened.

Not to be too cynical, but I don't want to pay too much attention to reactions from a 22-year-old ballplayer with incredibly limited exposure, whose life has been little more than a series of tip-offs from biddy ball to AAU to high school to the pros. LeBron's reaction simply reflects the self-absorption of the day when it comes to young athletic gods whose transition from boyhood to manhood is in too many cases put off until retirement from the pros.

If we're lucky, the men and women who are both enlightened and emboldened will not only be supportive but will drown out the knuckleheads and Neanderthals and everybody who wants to slow the march of progress. Even one step away from tolerance, whether we're talking about race, gender, religious beliefs or sexuality, simply slows the march to the day when none of this stuff matters.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company