Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Who Is Keeping Gay Athletes in the Closet?

Former NBA player John Amaechi made news recently when he announced that he is gay. But why do so many gay male athletes keep their sexual orientation a secret? Is it a fear of teammates, or of public reaction?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The former NBA star Tim Hardaway was widely criticized last week for making the following comments on a radio show. This is a quote, "you know, I hate gay people so let it be known." Hardaway went on to say, "I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic." That's the quote.

His remarks followed the announcement of another former NBA player who said that he is gay. Commentator Frank Deford says it is unusual for professional athletes to come out of the closet, but not for the reasons you might think.

FRANK DEFORD: Periodically now, a former professional player, who nobody ever heard of when he was playing, comes out with a book revealing that he is gay. The latest is John Amaechi, late of the NBA. Each account invariably details the difficulty the player had in keeping his secret midst such a macho culture.

Then following that is the inevitable response, which is to show compassion for what the gay athlete endured while castigating his league for being so homophobic a culture. Now please understand, I could not be more sympathetic with gay players like Amaechi. I can only imagine how painfully difficult it must be to live and play in such a competitive environment while having everyday to pretend to be something that you are not.

I would also acknowledge that any group of young men - yes, especially those in athletics, where the testosterone is boiling - will be generally rude and insensitive. It's not nice but it has surely come with the territory ever since young men foregathered to go out hunting for wild wooly mammoths.

I can quite understand how poor Amaechi had to steel himself not to cringe most everyday in the locker room listening to a random gay bashing, hearing every mean epithet ever employed for homosexuals. But hey, a lot of that is just braggadocio and posturing, and a lot of it comes from a relatively small percentage of any team.

When, to use an analogy, women reporters first were allowed in the locker room a generation ago, most of the players accommodated themselves. It was only a handful on any team that found gross and sophomoric ways to behave.

Yes, there are jerks on every team and a few outright homophobes. But my experience and instinct leave me to believe that if a professional male athlete did dare come out, most of his teammates would accept it and the predominant peer pressure would force the numbskulls to go along.

Evidence? Well, okay. I know personally well two absolutely outstanding athletes who starred for many years - one in a team sport, one in an individual sport. No, neither ever came out. But yes, everybody knew they were gay. But they were good guys and the one team player was a fabulous teammate. And so, after a while it just wasn't an issue.

So I believe that the reason gay male athletes stay in the closet has far more to do with the public than with the locker room. Especially in our society today where you find so much incivility in the grandstand, what player would dare risk giving the beered-up Neanderthal creeps a chance to scream vile personal insults every time he missed the basket or struck out?

Isn't it revealing that not a single American leading man actor has ever admitted his homosexuality when he was still a star? And yet we all know that the theatre is institutionally welcoming to gays. Obviously, it is the fear of the audience, not of their colleagues, that keeps gay actors playing straight.

Male athletes can be boars and bullies, you bet. Teams and leagues themselves can be hidebound. Yes, granted; professional sports is not the most forgiving environment. But to hear every time a former athlete comes out that players are of especially prejudiced is simply a canard. The villains are much more the ones cheering and booing than the ones playing. The bad guys are us.

INSKEEP: Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated joins us each Wednesday.

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