The Road to a More Progressive NBA

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May 17th was International Anti-Homophobia Day. It was fitting, because just a day before, Suns president Rick Welts decided to address homophobia in the NBA by coming out.

Welts had finally decided to come to his longtime friend, NBA commissioner David Stern to tell him about his plans to come out. New York’s Times writer Dan Berry hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “In many work environments, this would qualify as a so-what moment. But until now, Mr. Welts, 58, who has spent 40 years in sports, rising from ball boy to N.B.A. executive to team president, had not felt comfortable enough in his chosen field to be open about his sexuality.”

Richard Lapchick, the leader of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, also described the situation well: “The fact that there’s no other man who has done this before speaks directly to how hard it must be for Rick to do this now,”

Welts himself said, “This is one of the last industries where the subject is off limits. Nobody’s comfortable in engaging in a conversation.”

A hostile environment

A lot of people point to Kobe Byrant’s recent on-court slur as an example of the NBA’s continued hostility towards homosexuals. Bryant’s indiscretion brought down an outcry, controversy and a $100 000 fine onto his head and he was quick to apologize.

But former player John Amaechi saw it as just another example of a hostile work environment: “I’m surprised that people are surprised,” Amaechi said “This is common language when I played. It was an everyday word that I heard. I haven’t seen anything new put in place [by the NBA] to tackle homophobia. There’s no reason for it to somehow get better.”

And although Byrant apologized, he still attempted to appeal the fine, a move that to some people show that wasn’t really sorry.

Perceived hostility in the sports world isn’t the only obstacle for some players. Gay players who are black are often hit with a double whammy. CNN anchor Don Lemon, who also recently came out, said, “It’s quite different for an African-American male. It’s about the worst thing you can be in black culture. You’re taught you have to be a man; you have to be masculine. In the black community they think you can pray the gay away.”

Will Sheridan, a former Villanova player, also felt the extra burden of being black and gay. “I feel as though the Black community is harder on the gays because we have a stronger tie to the church,” Sheridan said. “We have a higher hold on church and those values that dictate us. In the Black community it is something that is not talked about and shunned upon. I have experienced that.”

And let’s not forget Tim Hardaway’s famous “I hate gay people” quote, now rearing its ugly head in columns and articles in light of Welts’s decision to come out.

But while journalists are touting Hardaway’s line as a justly ominous boogeyman, a specter of basketball’s ugly side, others feel a more accepting NBA isn’t that far off.

The road to a progressive NBA

Cyd Zeigler is the co-founder of OutSports.com, a website devoted to furthering acceptance of homosexuals in the sports industry. In an interview on the Michael Irvin Show, Zeigler felt optimistic about Welts’s coming out. “It is more acceptable to be gay in sports now than it is to be homophobic,” he said. “You look at the public reaction, David Stern’s reaction, the commissioner of the league, the president of the Phoenix Suns, the star of the Phoenix Suns. You look at the reaction of the President of the team [Phoenix Suns] coming out of the closet. It has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Charles Barkley would agree with that. In light of Welts’s coming out, he has told interviewers that he has played on several teams with gay teammates. “First of all, every player has played with gay guys,” he said. “It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say: ‘Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.’ First of all, quit telling me what I think. I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play… Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin’ idiot. I would even say the same thing in college. Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person.”

And hey, even Tim Hardaway doesn’t exactly endorse that “I hate gay people” view anymore.

But we should understand that the reason we are talking about this now, is because Welts had the courage to make it an issue. While Barkley and Zeigler can create a picture of a positive environment, and Bryant and Hardaway can apologize all they like, you can see how it really started when one man had the courage to be who he really is.

The road to a tolerant and accepting NBA starts here.

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