Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story about Phoenix Suns’ president and chief executive Rick Welts, who recently decided to come out to the sporting world. What should be a “so what?” moment, unfortunately, won’t be. And, despite Welts’ bravery, true change won’t come about until an active player walks proudly out of the closet.
The challenge with that idea is that he’d be walking out of the closet into a puerile minefield in his very own locker room. While society as a whole has grown more accepting of gay lifestyles, there’s a reason why sport is one of the last bastions of homophobia – it’s a place where big men play a little boys’ game.
Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that a retired basketball player’s admission that he is gay, John Amaechi, set off another former NBA player, Tim Hardaway. In a radio interview, Hardaway said, “You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known… I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.”
He went on to say that he wouldn’t want a gay teammate and that he would distance himself from the gay player. Hardaway also said that gay players shouldn’t be allowed in the dressing room.
That last one makes sense, of course. Because, as we all know, gay people are just ravenous, oversexualized beings who lie in wait, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone’s junk in the dressing room. In fact, a glimpse of athletes’ junk is a prize not limited to only gay males – females, too, are powerless to the athletic groin. Just ask Clinton Portis, who during the Ines Sainz controversy, said, “You put a woman and you give her a choice of 53 athletes, somebody got to be appealing to her… I don’t know what kind of woman won’t if you get to go and look at 53 men’s packages. And you’re just sitting here, saying, ‘Oh, none of this is attractive to me.’”
Hardaway’s gone on to make reparations, working with the Trevor Project and the YES Institute to polish his public image – I mean, get educated on GLBT issues. Portis has been rightly condemned to the Land of the Stupid. But just because they’re two people who didn’t have the common sense to keep their mouths shut, doesn’t mean that they don’t represent a number of other athletes.
While athletes may think that the dressing room is a seething, writhing mass of libido-fuelling raw sexuality, they couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, most dressing rooms are the last bastion of retarded development. For the most part, it’s OK. After all, these are men playing games – and some of the behaviour and humour is absolutely childlike at times. That’s great – there’s nothing wrong with that.
But when childish attitudes spill over and become hurtful, that’s when the fun stops.
Unfortunately, that’s a huge part of the Alpha Male attitude that many of these athletes have. Many of them have long been physically superior to their peers, their toughness is admired, and their ability to ‘man up’ is a prized asset. And that’s why one of the worst things you can do to an athlete is rob him of some of that masculinity. Kobe Bryant recently got in trouble for calling a referee a “faggot.” But why that term? Because to some athletes, being gay makes you less than a man – and that makes them inferior on this testosterone-fuelled field of play.
Yet, for all the bravado, there seems to be an underlying insecurity. Like peacocks, athletes will primp and puff about, showcasing their masculinity. They walk around dressing rooms naked to all. Would the culture change in the presence of a gay teammate? Most likely, because the overall climate would. After all, some athletes don’t want another guy checking them out – even if it would never happen. The fear is there.
But here’s a question for athletes. How many reporters may be gay? Yet that hasn’t been addressed as an issue in light of post-game dressing-room access? A gay male reporter can go into a dressing room, but not a female? My reporting brethren often feel uncomfortable going into a dressing room to conduct interviews, while the female members of our profession are forced to wait outside. Trust me, as much as athletes hate the dressing-room interview, I know many reporters who would prefer to not engage in them either – and everyone desperately tries to follow the Eyes Up best practices. Let them get dressed, ensure access, and everyone’s happy – and there’s no potential for discomfort. But reporters aren’t part of the team.
I’d like to think that athletes like Hardaway, Portis, John Rocker, and the like are the minority. I certainly don’t want to paint all athletes with the same brush, as there are many who are supportive of gay rights. Unfortunately, it’s the idiots that ruin the reputation of the majority of decent players.
The saddest thing about this whole situation is that there’s a huge opportunity being missed here. So many kids look up to athletes as role models. We can get into the whole Barkley-esque “I’m not a role model” debate, but the fact is that athletes ply their trade in hero worship. Fan support pays for tickets, jerseys, cards, and other memorabilia that brings these athletes the perks they enjoy. Imagine, then, the impact that players could have if they openly supported an openly gay teammate.
Today’s athletes could make life so much better for gay youth. They just need, collectively, to grow up.