Is Pegasus Warm?
As you may have noticed, the FreeDarko Giant Mouth was mum on the subject of John Amaechi. I had to send a couple of deflating emails to non-sports friends, explaining that Amaechi was out of the league, at best a role player, and culturally quite far from the heart of the NBA mainstream. This only confirms some stereotypes: gays are swishy Brits who lack the grit defense demands, and can't stick in the league regardless of who they bone. Ring me up when a star-caliber guy who moves within normal NBA circles comes out—that's when paradigms get bloated and crack.
Not surprisingly, the real insight went unnoticed, tucked away in player quotes that were either glossed over or misinterpreted. The otherwise fulsome Doc Rivers offered this bittersweet insight:
"We're all insensitive at times," [Rivers] said. "There's no taboo subject in the locker room. I think if he would have come out, they would have got on him jokingly. They would have held no punches and they would have made fun of him just like they make fun of guys here.
This is kind of a doozy: that in order to fit in, a gay man would have to submit to ridicule. What Rivers seems to be getting at, though, is the sacrosanct nature of team camraderie. For this hypothetical gay NBA'er to reallly have an impact, his exceptionalism couldn't be front and center; he couldn't be given special treatment or subject to too many fawning halftime segments. He would have to be one of the guys in all basketball situations, which would include a good-natured ribbing now and then. The obvious counter: wouldn't this be another Jackie Robinson? Yes, in some senses, but the game of basketball has been integrated by other groups several times over. It would be naive and a little insulting to hold this man up as a sixties-style pioneer when that form of social statement comes off as tired and old-fashioned. Maybe gays are the most discriminated against group on the planet; still, the goal should be absorption into the web of difference, not acting as if this long-overdue figure deserve Civil Rights-era treatment.
LeBron was getting at something similar, but apparently no one got it. The AP took James to mean that he "didn't think an openly gay person could survive in the league," and the current version up on AOL had replaced his appearance with some harmless Shaq love. Here's what he said, still intact in a lesser home:
"With teammates you have to be trustworthy, and if you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy," James said. "So that's like the No. 1 thing as teammates - we all trust each other. You've heard of the in-room, locker room code. What happens in the locker room stays in there. It's a trust factor, honestly. A big trust factor."
Clearly, LeBron was explaining why it's important that gay player do come out. Again, if someone were willing to be honest and let his identity be part of the team's chemistry, things would work. That might be wishful thinking, but it's at least a somewhat pragmatic model of how this figure might really make a statement to the world: by getting respect, making the All-Star team, and being accepted as a part of the basketball world. I'm not advocating repression or assimilation. What I am claiming, though, is that a normalized place in the game is the only way gays in sports will ever be anything more than a novelty.
On a related note, I've been trying to decide if the sports blogosphere is more homophobic than sexist. My sense is that it is, in large part because there's no semi-ironic exorcism ritual associated with contemplating gays. Like it's harder to degrade gays while celebrating them and thrashing yourself, mostly because there's no baseline assumption that they matter. Women are women, and the subject/object tango that men engage in with them is as old as cheetahs and lumber. With gays, though, there's no "I need you and in many cases respect you" understood as hogging the background. About the closest that can be managed is "I know a lot of them," which is no less laughable than "I have black friends."
Players, though, are different than fans. Like LeBron says "what happens in the locker room stays in there." And the "trust factor" is a two-way street.