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."
It's a rather sharp sign of the level of homophobia and repressed homoeroticism--in a sport that involves all kinds of "banging down low," as the announcers tell us--that so many jocks immediately gravitate toward the fear of what might happen in the shower. In our televised interview on the Canadian program Outside the Lines, Jim Traber insisted that he had no problem with having a gay teammate... as long as he didn't "try to touch my butt in the shower." (I gently informed Jim that not even the soap wants to touch his butt in the shower.) Amaechi had to tell fellow members of the Utah Jazz to stop flattering themselves. When his Neanderthal, crew-cutted teammate Greg Ostertag asked Amaechi, "Dude, are you gay?" Amaechi responded in his clipped British accent, "Greg, you have nothing to worry about."
But I have nothing but respect for the NBA people going beyond the "locker room code" to offer real support. Former teammate Michael Doleac told the Palm Beach Post, "If that's who he is, good for him. John was a smart guy, a great guy, a fun guy."
Another former teammate, Grant Hill, said to the Associated Press, "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 retiring."
But my favorite comments came from Knicks coach Isiah Thomas. Lord help me, I am starting to really like the man, which may be a sign of the apocalypse.
Thomas told  the press, "If [there is an openly gay player] in my locker room, we won't have a problem with it. I can't speak for somebody else's locker room, but if it's mine, we won't have a problem. I'll make damn sure there's no problem.... We're a diverse society and we preach acceptance. We're proud of diversity and no matter what your sexual preference may be...no one should be excluded."
In the middle of all of this tortured--and long overdue--public grappling by the league, Amaechi was also blindsided from a surprising source: ESPN columnist LZ Granderson. Granderson, who is gay, wrote , "I am so over gay people. Specifically, John Amaechi.... You know, the athlete who comes out after retiring, writes a tell-all, and then hears how courageous he is from straight columnists trying to appear 'evolved'.... I can't help but wonder: When will somebody simply man up? That is, come out while he is still playing and finally demystify this whole gay athlete thing once and for all."
This is an outrageous argument. Granderson, as a well-salaried ESPN columnist, feels safe out of the closet. But his daily reality couldn't be more different from someone who has to navigate the machismo that dominates the typical locker room. It couldn't be more different from the athlete risking the opportunity to emerge from poverty in a profoundly homophobic society. As Amaechi said about coming out while active, "It's terrifying. These people are looked at as stars, as NBA players. Any change to that would be psychologically, emotionally and financially devastating." If Granderson really wants to do something about homophobia, maybe instead of chastising closeted gay players, he should report on the extracurricular activities of Indianapolis Colts football coach Tony Dungy. Dungy, who just became the first African-American to lead a team to Super Bowl victory, will thump his Bible at a March fundraiser for the Indiana Family Institute. The IFI is affiliated with James Dobson's Focus on the Family, which fights to "retrain" the "evil" of homosexuality. Granderson should take a cue from gay former NFL player Esera Tuaolo, who told the Associated Press, "What John did is amazing. He does not know how many lives he's saved by speaking the truth.... Living with all that stress and that depression, all you deal with as a closeted person, when you come out you really truly free yourself."
Absolutely. But, as we are seeing in 2007, freedom ain't free.