The recent chaos surrounding the John Amaechi book, “Man in the Middle,” in which Amaechi comes forward about his sexuality and how it affected his NBA career, makes it quite obvious why those still playing and retired players do not come forward about their sexualities. Is it because there are really no athletes that are gay in any of the major sports? This is highly unlikely, with the number of players in the four major sports who have competed over decades of rosters, that only six of them were gay. Amaechi is the sixth former professional athlete from these leagues to come out. The more likely answer is that the reaction and media coverage that we see every time this event happens scares active and retired athletes from stating that they are gay.
While Amaechi was playing with the Utah Jazz, he feared to come out because, according to Utah state law, you can be fired over something such as your sexuality. After a mediocre career, Amaechi came out with his book, which chronicles the difficulty of being gay in the professional sports industry. The constant fear of being an outcast to teammates, fans and other players around the league keeps players from coming out.
The reaction from those within the NBA, former players, sportscasters and fans was widespread and varying. However, we should have seen it coming. There was a preview in 2002 when no players came out. Rumors had started about a member of the New York Mets being gay.
The media fingered Mike Piazza, known for his stellar play, as well as his public appearances with beautiful women at night clubs. Piazza got married two years later, ending any remaining doubts about his sexuality. However, the media circus that emerged because of a potentially gay player must have made it uncomfortable for any player considering coming out.
There seems to be a general consensus question when any one of these situations occurs: “Why don’t more gay athletes come out?” After every incident, it is quite clear why they do not. During the Piazza incident, Phillies manager Larry Bowa stated, “If it was me, I’d probably wait until my career was over.” He also added that it would certainly help if it was a star rather than a mediocre player.
With the recent Amaechi book, Bowa’s feelings were reaffirmed. Former NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway was doing a radio interview regarding his thoughts and feelings on Amaechi’s book and said, “I hate gay people?I don’t like to be around gay people. I’m homophobic.” Hardaway later apologized, more for being stupid enough to go on record as saying that than for the actual comment itself. However, you can’t help but think that there are many other current players that have the same mentality. NBA star LeBron James was not as frank as Hardaway, but he added that the league is not ready for gay people. “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,” James said.
Amaechi said later in an interview that he knows that there are other gay players currently in the NBA and he has spoken to them. What are their reservations about coming out? “It’s a frightening prospect. It’s terrifying. There are people for whom their entire world is based around this idea that people will look at them and when they look at them, they are NBA superstars, NBA players. And any change to that would be psychologically devastating. Emotionally devastating, financially devastating.”
Amaechi is right. It would completely change the way others looked at that player, in any of the major sports. Some would request a separate locker room. Some would demand trades. It’s a sad reality, but it is exactly that: the reality. While the rest of the country becomes slightly more accepting, with New Jersey recently allowing civil unions for gays, it seems the sports nation lags far behind. What can be done to change it? Very little, until the athletes who play in the leagues become more accepting themselves. The fans contribute to the fear as well. With the number of threatening letters sent to Amaechi, it’s just another hurdle for those gay players to get over before coming out.
Hopefully a superstar player comes out, someone who is beloved by everyone and would be able to handle the media, and perhaps other players and fans would quickly change their opinion of the stereotypical gay athlete.
Goff is a member of the class of 2008.