As if we needed further confirmation that Charles Barkley is more in touch with America than our punditocracy—not to mention the jackassocracy in D.C.—consider his Calvin Coolidge-like response to John Amaechi’s new book, Man in the Middle. Told that the former NBA journeyman had publicly revealed his homosexuality, Sir Charles offered just one word: “So?”
To the Opinion Shapers, the book marked another newsworthy milestone. As they reminded us, the British-born Amaechi—who played for one year at Vanderbilt—was the first NBA player, active or retired, to leave the closet.
A couple of ex-Major Leaguers did it. An ex-umpire did it. An ex-NFL player did it. A women’s basketball star did it. Martina and Billie Jean eventually did it. But no man in professional basketball had made such an admission.
Which brings us rightly back to Barkley’s question. Why should this be treated as a big deal?
It’s true that men’s professional sports are among the most closeted places in our society. Yet Amaechi’s self-outing has been widely greeted with yawns (and the jaded recognition that he has a book to sell).
In fact, what’s perhaps most notable about this story is that Amaechi, at 6-foot-10, may be the largest and strongest acknowledged homosexual among professional athletes. During a Vanderbilt-LSU game, Amaechi, as broad-shouldered and more chiseled than his famous opponent, shut down Shaquille O’Neal. Maybe if more big, strapping gays uncloseted themselves, we’d see more TV characters who reflect the physical and temperamental diversity of the gay community. But even that no longer feels like a breakthrough, since we’ve already seen manly gay men in Six Feet Under and Brokeback Mountain who wouldn’t be caught dead humming show tunes.
The idea that we’d be shocked by homosexual men in professional sports just seems, well, so 1985. Rock Hudson was a shock. John Amaechi is not. Today, gays and lesbians openly inhabit almost every area of our society. Regardless of their views on homosexual marriage, it’s probably fair to say that most Americans know or work with someone who’s gay. The reality of gay men in the NFL or NBA seems about as eyebrow-raising as the idea of gay stockbrokers or gay firemen.
On racial “milestones,” too, the mainstream has been far ahead of the media. Along with Peyton Manning’s quest for a championship, the most repeated storyline before the Super Bowl involved the presence of two African American head coaches in an event that had never before witnessed even one.
To be sure, milestones record not only where we are but also how far we’ve come. Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy’s presence on the Super Bowl sidelines invited us to recall a time not so long ago when no black man was allowed to coach a white one, or even lead a team as quarterback.
Yet I suspect that, among the majority of white fans at least, the coaches’ story seemed more interesting to the media than to consumers of media. It’s not because black head coaches in the NFL are common. They’re not. It’s not because racial prejudice no longer operates. It does. It’s because a critical mass of fans no longer think first about race when they see Dungy of the Colts or Smith of the Bears or Marvin Lewis of the Bengals. They have come to notice the W’s on a coach’s record more than the color of his skin.
We’ll doubtless hear much, much, much, much more about barrier-breaking as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama make their presidential runs. But for the latter, anyhow, we’ve already plowed that psychological ground. Does anyone seriously doubt that, had he chosen to run, Colin Powell would have been president? (Pundits would still be trying to explain why so many white Southern males voted for him.) Maybe breaking that original mental barrier is what makes the eventual eclipsing of the physical one seem anticlimactic for us. It’s an afterthought.
Still, it’s appropriate to ask a counter-question to Barkley’s. If acknowledging homosexuality no longer seems like a boundary for professional athletes, why aren’t gay players on active rosters coming forward?
Certainly, among athletes and the media, there’s a strong presumption that leaving the closet would be a career-threatening move. In his book, Amaechi alleges that Jerry Sloan, his decidedly old-school coach with the Utah Jazz, tried to get rid of him because of his sexuality, even though Amaechi remained closeted.
Some athletes fear that disclosing their true identity would disrupt the team. LeBron James had a different take. “With teammates, you have to be trustworthy,” he said. “If you’re gay and you’re not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy.” You can tell how much things have changed when it’s the secrecy, not the homosexuality, that makes you suspect.
The day is coming when an NBA star at the peak of his career will follow the lead of the retired journeymen with nothing to lose and tell the world who he really is. He will find, as Amaechi says he has found, overwhelming support from fans and teammates. He will be remembered as a pioneer, ironically, even as most fans view his announcement as last week’s news. It will be one giant leap for a gay man, one big “So what?” for the rest of us.