Tuesday, August 30, 2011

We're not ready for a gay professional athlete

I have over 7,000 words on my utter disdain for New England sports fans that I'm not finished with because I haven't spewed enough bile that best exemplifies my hate. I wish we could call this blog CURSE OF THE GREAT MAMBINO. Every time Paul Pierce goes down, I hope that he needs a wheelchair...for life. I couldn't tell you all the positions in hockey, but I still wanted the Bruins to lose, and lose BIG. Anyone who supports the Clippers helps to sully my city, as I consider that team to be a scab on the otherwise pristine, Julianne Hough-level skin of the Los Angeles hoops scene. I went to Boston College and rightfully look down on other Massachusetts schools as MIT, Harvard and Tufts look down on us.

Despite all of this, I love Bill Simmons. I think he's a genius. He is my inspiration for my writing style, the direction of this blog and why I love sports literature and journalism as much as I do. I would even go so far as to say that he's the most influential sports writer of my generation. I read his 700-page Book of Basketball in 10 days, and even with all the differences we have in sporting allegiances, I tend to agree with almost everything he says.

Almost everything.

A few months ago, I heard Bill go on a 10-minute tangent on his BS Report podcast about how he thought that this was a perfect time for an athlete to come out of the closet. Phoenix Suns President Rick Welts had just revealed in a short press release that he was gay, and that he wanted to out himself as a way to help people across the country that might be struggling with their identity.

Bill thought that the social climate in America was right for it, that the support systems existed within the organizations, and that it could even be something that helps a marginally skilled athlete's career (in the case of a superstar, it might be more harmful than helpful, he admitted).

As much as I want to say that Bill's right, he's not. He's just not. In my opinion, I think that there are very few ways that a locker room in the NBA, NHL, MLB or NFL could ever handle one of their teammates coming out. In a vast majority of situations, this absolutely could not happen.

Now as a disclaimer, I love me some gay peoples. One of my best friends is gay. I think I might like his boyfriend more than I like him. My favorite activity at the bar I used to work was flirting with gay guys so they'd give me bigger tips (just a hint for anyone out there considering bartending: Asian face + gay customers = big tips. Just sayin'). I voted no on Prop. 8, I want equality of marriage, the whole nine.

My instant reaction towards hearing Bill's opinion was "...didn't Joakim Noah just get fined for hurling a gay slur at a fan? And then didn't Kobe Bryant, arguably the league's most famous international player next to Yao, get fined for looking directly at a ref and calling the guy a 'fucking faggot?'" No sooner did I start to formulate this post in my mind, did Gordon Beckham of the Chicago White Sox tweet "GETZ IS GAY," in reference to his teammate Chris Getz. DeSean Jackson chided a caller on a radio show for not saying "no homo" after a comment relating to DeSean's weiner. Oh yeah, and then he branded the caller a faggot.

I just re-read that paragraph and laughed out loud. This was the chain of events as they actually happened! It was as if Gordon Beckham and DeSean Jackson heard that BS Report, disagree,d and covertly decided to tell Bill that it's not quite the time. The whole situation is just absurd.

For all of you that are still hanging on and reading at this point, I know that this post is a departure from our usual jargon about Frank McCrook or Derek Jeter or statistical relevance of NBA Finals teams. We're getting deep here. We're going to talk about things that matter. I mean, Kobe matters. But besides Kobe, we hardly talk about things that really really matter. So buckle up.

The country isn't ready.

If I recall correctly, Kobe got called for something by a ref that he didn't particularly agree with. And by "particularly agree with," I meant "think any person could possibly do, and such a violation was punishable by disembowelment." So Kobe looked at that ref, waited until he got his attention and yelled (in clear view of all the national television cameras) "you fucking faggot!" Wow Kobester. Now is referee Bennie Adams gay? Not to my or anyone else's knowledge. It's not like Kobe turned around into the Los Angeles crowd, spotted Nathan Lane and yelled at him. If I may translate into proper English for the Mamba, he meant "Excuse me, referee? Yes, you sir. You in the black and white striped shirt. Yes, well, I vehemently disagree with your call. Honestly, I thought that was an absolutely dreadful call you made just right now. I imagine that perhaps you left your glasses at home on this road trip you are on right now (oh by the way, how nice is that new Ritz right next to the arena? Posh, no? Vanessa says the sheets are to DIE for), you ran out of contact lenses and thus, your vision was impaired. That is the only rational explanation for the horrible refereeing decision you just made. Awful." Unfortunately, it came out much cruder.

That's the standard in our society in 2011. In a lot of places, words like "gay", "homo," and "faggot" are used as synonyms for "bad", "stupid," and "idiot." Those values are equal. Now I'm not saying that every single person that says "Oh, that was so gay!" is a homophobe or a bigot. A lot of times, this is just a product of the terminology for the times we live in. And certainly not a great sign for bringing a gay athlete to the forefront of America.

An NBA locker room cannot handle it

I'm going to sidestep some of the trickier and controversial ideas here - not so much because I think it will upset our dozens...AND DOZENS of readers, but because I'm just not sure that I'm right about it. However, I am going to take the NBA as a microcosm of America. It's fair to say that at least a majority of this country is biased against the gay community to some degree. I'm not sure how specific or how much evidence that I need to prove that, but I don't care. I don't think I'm wrong. And by biased against, I'm covering an entire range of emotion, from hardcore hate-crime perpetrators to people who would prefer not to drive down Santa Monica Blvd because it's "icky."

An NBA locker room could not handle this. Mind you, I don't have personal relationships with any active NBA player. I'm not a beat writer, I don't know any beat writers, and I certainly don't have any inside knowledge myself. But I do read a lot of interviews and see enough twitter feeds to know how professional athletes are - and to be honest, they're not that much different that the athletes with whom I had personal relationships in high school and in college. They are meatheads. They are guys who largely rely on sheer physicality as their occupation of competing with other human beings. It's a career full of testosterone and machismo. Maybe I'm stereotyping (I'm not), but the meatheads I knew aren't exactly the most tolerant people I've ever met.

Sticking with this stereotype, how would guys deal with this on a day-to-day basis? Basketball, baseball, football, whatever...they are all games based on routine actions. Guys like to get to the arena or ballpark at the same time, get in their swings or shots and get into a flow that is best conducive for them to get into the flow of their games. By now, "baseball is a game of inches" is an incredibly cliché statement to make; but that doesn't make it less true. Incremental changes in a guy's swing or throw could be the difference between being cut from a team in spring training and being an MVP-caliber player. I am of the belief that this goes for most athletes no matter what the sport. If a guy only gets in 5 swings before a game instead of his usual 25, I wouldn't be surprised if he went hitless for the next week. If a guy doesn't tape up his wrist exactly right, I can see him going 2 for 12 shooting that night.

Now let's say that being around gay people bothered a player. Would that distraction be enough for a 2 for 12 night? Or a hitless week? Or would that make for an 0-for-July? He starts to get inside his own head and poof! The season is gone and so is his job.

This goes far beyond a simple question of "does it bother you if you are around a homosexual?" Physical sports involve a lot of chest bumping, high fives, and butt pats. How is that going to go over when a player's gay teammate gives his teammate a congratulatory slap on the behind? Or a James Posey-esque uncomfortably-long-hug-seriously-it-always-makes-me-way-uncomfortable-hug. What if you shared a locker room with that guy, filled with naked men? These are just a couple of examples I threw out from the top of my head. I am positive there are a hundred instances that happen like this in any professional athlete's work day. A hundred instances and incidents for any player to second-guess every action his gay teammate makes and think "...wait, what did he mean by that?" or "I can't do this, I have a gay teammate." Just a hundred more chances for any player to form a mental kink in his mind while playing a highly mental game.

Beyond the individual, there's the team component as well. The Dallas Mavericks constantly talked this year about the "insane chemistry" they had, and it was their trust in each other that was the key component that led to their first ever title. Any great baseball team has to trust that their defense will make plays and their offense will pick everyone up. Aaron Rodgers has to know that his guys are going to make catches and throw down those blocks. Every guy has to trust one another, be confident in each other's abilities and be totally at ease with each other. I don't think that I have to delve too deep into this, but if even one guy has a problem with his gay teammate, this could absolutely destroy the team's chemistry. Maybe a locker room would have enough leadership to overcome any one person's distraction, but more than a handful of uncomfortable guys will make for a most certainly unmanageable situation. This could change a locker room from harmonious to toxic in an incredibly short period of time.

But let's move past that. Let's just say that NBA players can deal with having a gay teammate, just as long as "his gay doesn't spill into my world. Do what you wanna do, but just keep that separate from the locker room." How would that happen? The entire media world would be focused on that team. Every question for months would revolve around that player being gay, regardless of box scores or division standings. More importantly, won't a revelation like this bring out an armada of gay rights organizations coming out in support of the player? Coming to games, waiting outside the locker room, cheering him at hotels? What about anti-gay rights and religious groups coming out and publicly condemning the team? How does that effect the psyche of religious players in the locker room? This would be one of the biggest stories of the year, decade and century. Though not exactly the same, this would be a Jackie Robinson-caliber moment. I don't mean to be hyperbolic here, but I truly believe that this would be one of the most significant moments in the history of American sports. That is the level of distraction I envision, in a profession already filled with them.

It's not worth the potential loss in revenue to the player

Let's be honest: a player of the caliber of LeBron, Kobe, Dwight or Dwyane is not going to come out of the closet. We already know the intense hatred and scrutiny that everybody has regarding LeBron James now - but can you imagine if he were to come out of the closet? The microscope would be on him that much more. There's so much to lose. I'm not just talking about potential marketing deals being cancelled, but this would affect his performance. We've established that this would be a distraction. But for these players, being distracted and playing at less than an elite level could be devastating to their NBA contracts.

But let's set our sights lower. Let's go beneath the Carlos Boozers, Paul Pierces and Danny Grangers of the world. Let's go to, say, Kyle Korver.

Kyle Korver is a fine player. He's got one job (to shoot) and isn't really a presence on the national scene, both in marketing nor performance. Let's say Kyle comes out of the closet. He's definitely going from an Ashton Kutcher look-a-like role player to the cover of Sports Illustrated. He's actually got a lot to gain from this in terms of national exposure, even though local marketing revenue could be drastically cut. What do I mean by this? Let's say the dude plays in a conservative market like OKC, Utah or Indianapolis. No more commercials for Herb's car dealership or signings at the town Wal-Mart.

So he gets his mag covers and talk show spots. Despite that, would Korver be able to withstand the intense pressure and anxiety of dealing with a gigantic magnifying glass on his back? Not only is he a one-man media circus and a distraction to the team, but he's also not doing his ONE job. I think that Korver gets cut and slowly fades into obscurity. Truthfully, is any team going to sign a guy who may or may not perform AND brings a lot of baggage with him? Furthermore, is having a gay player on the team going to be a deciding factor for potential free agents? All things even, if a player has a problem with a gay teammate, then maybe that makes him sign with another team. He could say that it has nothing to do with homophobia, just that the other team has a better chance at winning. So for a guy on Kyle Korver's level (and just to be clear, I'm not saying that Kyle Korver is gay, or sets off my gaydar - I just like picking on him and his stupid haircut), I think the risk for a guy making a (relatively) low salary of $5 million a year is insurmountable.

The only way this works is...

IF the player AND team can be psychologically sound enough to handle the pressures and scrutiny of the media and keeps on performing. Simple as that. Well, maybe not "simple," but you get the idea. If this doesn't affect the team, and the guys can compartmentalize their one teammate to a lifestyle choice, then it's only a boon for the ownership. They'll get put on more national games, have more people buy their merchandise and become something of a national brand.

I just don't think that's possible. There are too many hurdles for this to happen. There are too many "ifs" and too many variables that have to go right for a team to handle this. But it all starts with locker room leadership. Let's look at this practically:

Could the 2011 Boston Bruins have handled this? Well, I'm not going to pretend to know anything about hockey. I don't really know the personalities of the Bruin players, but I do know the personality of Boston, and I'm not sure it would go over really well in Massachusetts, especially in the surrounding towns and cities. I couldn't see them handling this.

Could the 2011 Green Bay Packers have handled this? Like hockey, I am light on my NFL knowledge. I do think that Green Bay, Wisconsin might be a hard place to pitch a gay player. On the flip side, football might be the most conducive to having a gay player. There's enough guys on the roster for a singular player to get lost in the shuffle (or as much as he could be), and with all the contact, he would be much more of a distraction for the other team that has to cover him or is getting tackled by him. I truly don't know enough about the Packers personnel to have an informed decision, but I still see this as a problem.

Could the 2011 Dallas Mavericks have handled this? I'm not sure. If Dirk, J Kidd and Jason Terry wrangled everyone up and told them that "this will NOT be a problem" and personally notified the boneheads on the team that they are not to step out of line, maybe it could have worked. But even the respect that Dirk, Kidd and Terry all carry from their teammates wouldn't be enough to stop a guy from being shaken if he was really bothered by a gay teammate. I see it being a problem, but could feasibly see the vets keeping everyone focused.

Could the 2010 San Francisco Giants have handled this? I think out of all the championship sports teams from the last year, this would have been the most apt to deal with the incredible distraction having a gay teammate would bring. This team is and was comprised of a bunch of guys who were just happy to have jobs. Also, those players aren't exactly the cookie-cutter stereotype for your run of the mill jock. More importantly, the local community would most likely embrace them (I'm just guessing here). A lot of hurdles would still be there, but at least in the locker room and at AT&T Park, life would be much easier than most places. I can see the Giants succeeding with a gay teammate more easily than the other 3 championship teams, but I still think it would be a struggle.

I want this to happen. This country needs this to happen. But despite my hopeful positivity, I can't see a scenario where any player feels this is a viable option. We're just not ready.

That all being said, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron got spit on in every city they went to, quite literally. They got hate mail from people around the country and were condemned their entire careers. Someone's got to be the first. I just hope whoever it is has the foresight to see how important this is and how difficult it will be. I hope that the locker room is full of open minded dudes that will accept this as a natural evolution of the game.

I hope America surprises me.

No comments:

Post a Comment