Public Is Real Test For Gay Athletes

By Bryan Burwell
Updated: February 15, 2007

ST. LOUIS — If former NBA center John Amaechi hoped his new book “Man in the Middle” would serve as the catalyst to spark a fascinating national dialogue about whether America is ready for a gay male professional athlete, consider his mission accomplished.

For more than a week, the sports world has been buzzing about the possible contents of Amaechi’s memoir, which was scheduled for nationwide release Wednesday, with athletes, coaches, journalists and random professional and amateur athletic sociologists offering insight and opinion.

Some have been surprisingly enlightened, some disturbingly homophobic.

“I think they illustrate the diversity of opinion,” Amaechi told the Associated Press as he began his publicity tour. “Some of them illustrate a great deal of naivete, and an oversimplification of the issue.”

“And some of them don’t speak with much thought at all. But there are some really well-spoken, provocative things that people have said that are positive, and they should be added to the conversation.”

I just wonder if anyone really understands that the real battle for acceptance isn’t inside the locker room. It’s outside, where public acceptance is certain to be slow, knuckle-dragging, cruel, intolerant and unforgiving.

Within the sports culture, the voices mostly debated only one side of the issue about the potential difficulty of whether an openly gay male athlete could survive in the macho culture of the professional sports world if he chose to come out of the closet.

The reality is, gay athletes already have survived that test. Shortly after former pro football player Esera Tuaolo came out of the closet in 2002, one of his former teammates in Jacksonville called me.

“We all knew,” said the former teammate, who is straight. “It really wasn’t a secret. Guys knew and we accepted it without saying anything about it. He was cool. We were cool. It just wasn’t a big deal.”

Charles Barkley said he had several gay ex-teammates. They may have been in the closet, but no one was dumb. It just didn’t matter that much. That’s how much the locker room culture has changed.

But the real struggle is outside the locker room, where enlightenment holds no premium against homophobia and just plain mean-spirited ignorance.

How would a gay player handle the intolerable insults from the stands as he travels around the league? How would a gay player survive the heated scrutiny of conservative religious protesters who believe his sexuality is a lifestyle choice and a mortal sin?

I always will take my chances with the locker room over the real world when it comes to social progress.