Thanks for Coming Out, John

Sigh. I hadn’t intended to join the gossipy legion by writing about one of the few pro athletes — and the first basketball player — to have publicly declared himself a homosexual. Former NBA forward John Amaechi, during his career, stood out more for his speech – he’s a British black man, unusually articulate for a pro athlete, quite apart from his distinctive accent – than for anything remarkable about his game (he was a blue collar banger) or, mercy me, for his sexual preferences. Apparently, he didn’t bring his gayness, as one current player put it, onto his teammates on several teams.

ESPN, though, has had wall-to-wall coverage of this sporting “breakthrough” because its book division has published Amaechi’s closet-busting memoir Man in the Middle. I’d heard about a few other player reactions – calm and dignified from the likes of Grant Hill (no surprise), nervous or incredulous or even mildly indignant comments from others – but it wasn’t until a former NBA All-Star left it all out on the floor during a radio interview that I decided to write about this. Until then, I agreed with the on-line NBA beat writer Tony Meija : a pro player coming out after his retirement has a high titillation rating, but it’s not a big hoops splash.

Having spent enormous amounts of time teaching, coaching and parenting teen-aged boys-to-men, the wariness of the players about homosexuality in a pro sports locker room is not surprising. Ignorance is not bliss for young men; I never quite get used to how frightened (and therefore often hateful) young men are about gays. (I remember showering with other guys after grade nine gym class being awkward for a day or two, and then it was just what you did. By the 1990s, it was hard to convince even 18-year-olds to shower after a workout. Spooky.) As for the Association players who are being quoted, most of them are under 25. These are tall and powerful kids who have lived in a protective jock bubble of privilege (and of encouraged ignorance) for much of their young lives. They wear expensive suits to the games, but many of them spend their off-court hours playing X-Box by the hour or trying – MUCH more successfully than the average high-schooler – to get laid. (Sex comes to them, like free shoes and team buffets.) Suddenly, microphones are under the noses of these (mostly) physically astonishing and intellectually sheltered youngsters, asking them to comment on difficult societal issues. Sometimes I feel sorry for them. Why do we expect them to know better?

Tim Hardaway, now, has stepped forward as the Bad Guy, the retired star who felt as free to publish his homophobia – “I hate gay people” – as Amaechi was to air his sexual preference. The NBA has duly banned him from its All-Star festivities in Las Vegas. (I’m relieved that the Association has maintained its moral purity.) Apart from everything else, Hardaway made a startling breech of the Athlete Interview Code, for which he has since apologized. (The AIC is re-enforced by public relations flacks and interview coaches, which Hardaway apparently doesn’t have access to anymore. We got to play hard or I know he’s got my back might not have the right connations in this case, but surely this was a perfect You know, it is what it is opportunity.) His regrets might be better late than never, but it sounds more like the classic non-apology I’m sorry if I offended anyone with my remarks than a self-examining I can’t believe I came out with such a bigoted statement; being a black man, I should surely know better than to judge people by externals, and I will work to educate myself…

As for Amaechi, he seems an honourable guy and I don’t doubt that this required some soul-searching on his part. However, the tendency of talking or writing heads to counter hateful attitudes by exalting his courage, his heroic leadership, strikes me as misplaced, too. He is, after all, selling a pile of books, and among his circle of friends and friendly colleagues that he cares about, I guess that his homosexuality is not news.

This story is so big because it’s tabloid fodder, gossipy tickling of the private life of someone who was somewhat famous for awhile. Sex is is pretty important and all, but how did it get to be the centre of our public conversations? It’s as if the frequency and geography (and the ratings!) of our private pleasures are what defines us, whereas any healthy adult knows that it makes for a small (if sweet) proportion of a human life. (My favourite experimental proof that sexuality is a tiny, private business was in high school classrooms. Even the gentlest suggestion that an adolescent’s parents are sexual beings elicits howls of protest and revulsion. Exactly my point. Their business, not ours. Touché!)

And in the Toronto Sun, of all places (speaking of tabloids and titillation, though the sports section is pretty good) appeared this thoughtful dismissal of “tolerance” and call for genuine respect from Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell. Like Hardaway, he speaks his mind, but it is a more broad and interesting one, as much as one can tell from an upstairs bedroom office in Ottawa. Asked about Amaechi and the players’ reactions to the thought of a gay teammate, Mitchell hoped that a man would be judged by his character and his actions, not by private preferences over which he may not feel much choice. He added, “It shouldn’t be about tolerance. It should be about respect. People should treat people as human beings….Are people supposed to tolerate me because I’m black? Or are they supposed to treat me with respect because I’m a human being?”

Thanks for speaking out, Sam.  As for Mr. Amaechi, I hope this means more to him than money. I hope it’s true that his openness gives solace and encouragement to the alienated, but I’m with Pierre Trudeau: The State has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Neither do we, except for our own.

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