Three years after his playing career came to an end, John Amaechi has made headlines by becoming the sixth professional male athlete from one of the four major U.S. sports (basketball, baseball, football, hockey) to acknowledge being gay, and the first pro basketball player to do so. There was a time not too long ago when this would have been a considerably bigger issue. But in the post Brokeback Mountain / Will and Grace era, overt homophobia is no longer politically correct. In this day and age when an actor on a TV show makes derogatory comments about the sexual orientation of a cast mate, it is not the outed actor who finds his job in jeopardy. Instead, the offending speaker is forced to remove his foot from his mouth and opt for rehabilitation. I’m not exactly sure what going into rehab for insulting someone’s preference of mate even means. Up until the Grey’s Anatomy incident, I was under the belief that rehab was strictly for substance abusers. But apparently there is a correctional facility for just about any socially unacceptable behavior. Perhaps employees of the advertising agency behind the Snickers commercial that first aired on Super Bowl Sunday, and was quickly denounced as insulting to the gay community, were sent to rehab as well. Might this also be the eventual fate of Jerry Sloan, Amaechi’s coach when he played for the Utah Jazz, who has been accused of being less than accepting of his former center’s alternate lifestyle? After all, when you consider that John Amaechi’s autobiography has been published by none other than ESPN, it seems clear that the sports establishment is officially choosing the path of enlightenment over stereotypical belittlement and old school disgust. The only thing missing is a catchy slogan. Let me the first to suggest – You’re so gay, and with that I’m okay.
Reaction to Amaechi’s admission throughout the NBA has been predictably mixed. For every “to each his own as long as he does his part on the court and doesn’t dare hit on me” there has been a “that is not cool because we shower together”. To the perspective of some Amaechi has no doubt attained heroic status, the Rosa Parks of Black British Ballers. Then again, Rosa did not claim she had every right to sit her tired self in the front of that bus from the safety of the curb after choosing to quietly ride in the back. She took her stand, literally her seat, while she was in the line of fire of those angry glares from white passengers. So let us reserve the highest of praise for the first player to acknowledge he is a gay man while still an active player, preferably one who is of All Star caliber. A journeyman player can be cut from his team and not picked up by any other without much being made of it. But if Michael Jordan in his prime had said he was gay, what would have been the reaction to that by teammates, opponents, fans, sponsors, endorsers, and the media?
Amaechi spoke on the subject of gays in the NBA in an interview back in 2002. “If you look at our league, minorities aren’t very well represented. There’s hardly any Hispanic players, no Asian Americans, so that there’s no openly gay players is no real surprise. It would be like an alien dropping down from space. There’d be fear, then panic. They just wouldn’t know how to handle it.” This strikes me as an accurate characterization of a hypothetical situation at that point in time. Would it be accurate in 2007? 2012? 2020? The answer, whatever it may be, is probably inevitable.