Former NBA center John Amaechi, who played for Orlando, Utah and Cleveland in his NBA career that ended in 2004, will publicly come out as a gay man in his new autobiography, Man in the Middle. With his pronouncement, Amaechi becomes arguably the most visible male athlete to come out to date.
Amaechi was never a star in his brief NBA career, but he is a name that NBA fans will recognize - he was a key contributor to some overachieving Orlando teams back in the Doc Rivers era some 5 years ago. And his name is one that is known on two continents: in addition to the United States, the native Brit is well-known in the UK.
The first thing that I thought of when I heard this news is that we're still nowhere close to the point where an athlete in a major professional league could openly declare his homosexuality in the middle of his career. It's no secret that in the NBA, as is the case in any sport really, intolerance of homosexuality is rampant. I don't need to be an NBA insider to know that. The NBA is a young man's game - I know a lot of young men, and "gay" is thrown out as an insult routinely.
Commissioner David Stern's comments about the story were questionable at best:
"We have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always 'have you got game?' That's it, end of inquiry."
That looks great when you're drawing up the NBA's official statement on diversity, but it's also blatantly false in many cases. Listen, that's not to say that the NBA is nothing but a bunch of insensitive jerks, but clearly there is an atmosphere where masculinity and verility are prized, and being gay tends to fall on the other side of the spectrum in that conversation. Instead of trying to sweep it aside, Stern needs to acknowledge that there's an institutional problem of insensitivity towards the issue, and take steps to address it.
There's no question that there are current NBA players that are gay - it would be a statistical improbability for that not to be true. But it would take quite a bit of courage for any of them to come out during their career. At this point, in the year 2007, it would probably be career suicide to do so. That player would risk the ire not only of opponents and fans, but probably some of his own teammates as well. And this is clearly secondary of course, but any marketability that player had in terms of endorsements would probably go down the drain too.
The thing is, if you asked any of Amaechi's teammates what they thought of him back when he was playing, I would guess that they would give their opinion on him without the thought of his sexual orientation ever crossing their mind. So, it shouldn't be any different today either.