There are those in the world of sports who view ESPN as some sort of diabolical genetic splicing of the Illuminati, George Bush and something scraped from Chris Berman’s loofah. (I personally believe that, not unlike the Bush family, ESPN’s power, while disturbing, is vastly overestimated.)
This view is being reasserted with the news that former NBA player John Amaechi has loudly and proudly let the world know that he is gay. Some have pointed out that Amaechi’s announcement, getting wall-to-wall coverage on ESPN, is aimed at promoting his new autobiography published by–you guessed it–ESPN Books. As former Major League Baseball player Jim Traber told me in an interview on Friday, “Instead of reporting the news, ESPN is creating news.”
This view, while snidely cynical, is terribly wrong. The British-born Amaechi is the first former NBA player to come out of the closet. This is a historic story irrespective of the best-laid designs of ESPN’s marketing gurus.
The NBA’s reaction is further proof of the story’s impact. NBA commissioner David Stern emerged from his germ-free bunker to comment, “We have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always ‘Have you got game?’ That’s it, end of inquiry.”
This all sounds very tidy and liberal, and most players seem hard-wired to give a similar answer. It’s all variations of former teammate Tracy McGrady’s comments: “I don’t care what you are as long as you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing on the court.” But Stern and company know perfectly well that feigned indifference isn’t solidarity or even support. Curiously, Amaechi’s revelation has yet to be posted at NBA.com.
Sports is one of the last grand hamlets of homophobia. Amaechi poses a real challenge to the realities of the locker room, the press box and the owner’s box: all places where I have heard homophobic comments used as casually as a comma. I give no credit to Stern’s pretension that it just doesn’t matter. I also have nothing but contempt for folks like bench-warming Philadelphia 76er Shavlik Randolph, who said, “As long as you don’t bring your gayness on me, I’m fine.” Then there was Steven Hunter, who said, “For real? He’s gay for real? Nowadays it’s proven that people can live double lives. I watch a lot of TV, so I see a lot of sick perverted stuff about married men running around with gay guys and all types of foolishness.”
I have nothing but pity for 22-year-old LeBron James (yes, still just 22), who commented, “You take showers together, you’re on the bus, you talk about things. With teammates, you have to be trustworthy. If you’re gay and you’re not admitting that you are, you’re not trustworthy. It’s the locker room code.”
As Washington Post writer Michael Wilbon responded, “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…. 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.”