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Saturday, February 17, 2007
Being John Amechi, but not being Tim Hardaway

I have waited a couple of days to blog about John Amechi's new book in which he announces that he is gay (the first active or retired NBA player to come out). Or about the nuclear explosion in the wake of former All-Star Tim Hardaway's statements on a Miami radio program this week:

"You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."

It only has gotten worse for Hardaway as his recent attempts at damage control have included apologies, non-apologies, and the statement that he would disown a gay family member. The NBA dismissed Hardaway from his official role in All-Star Weekend events. It remains to be seen what becomes of his broadcast job.

I do not have a coherent picture to paint of this incident, other than to store it as another example of how free expression plays out in sport. For now, though, some totally random thoughts:

First, Hardaway's comments took the spotlight off the previous leader in the "What Were They Thinking When They Said That?" Competition: the Sixers' Shavlik Randolph, who said, when asked about Amechi's revelations, that he was fine with it "as long as you don’t bring your gayness on me." This one is funny, just because I have no idea what it means. I am not sure if Randolph meant: a) Don't have your sexual orientation rub off on me, like a cold or b) Don't hit on me. Either way, nothing like a couple years as a student at Duke to give someone a nuanced, enlightened understanding of the world.

Second, I cannot tell what impact Amechi coming out will have. It should drive home the point that there are gay professional athletes out there. And it makes some sense that the first player to come out is not a superstar, but a journeyman who has less to lose by bringing the political issue to the fore.

Third, this incident is a good barometer of where American society and sport (as its own insular society) is on this issue and how far we have to go. On one hand, the initial (pre-Hardaway) positive reaction to the revelation by current and former players suggests a level of acceptance that, perhaps, is higher than we might have expected. Maybe professional team sport is ready for an openly gay athlete--as opposed to the closeted gay athletes who, statistically speaking, are already in the locker room.

On the other hand, Hardaway's comments--blunt, abrasive, and offensive though they may be--may be an accurate reflection of the majority view among NBA players. Men's sports, especially men's team sports, remain (along with the military) the last bastion of high-testosterone, hierarchical, male-bonding machismo, with which homosexuality is (perceived to be) incompatible. I get the sense (with no real empirical or evidentiary support, just a feeling) that women's sports is a little more accepting of lesbian athletes and coaches (the controversy at Penn State notwithstanding). Actually, society in general is more accepting of lesbians than gay men. The point is, maybe we are not as far along as we would like to think.

Fourth, Hardaway actually deserves some credit for his honesty. I believe he holds those beliefs about homosexuality deeply and sincerely (although I do not know their source). And again, I believe many athletes hold similar (if less sharply stated) beliefs. But I am convinced there is a benefit to hateful thoughts being brought to the surface, to knowing who holds those ideas and to being able to respond to them (as the NBA and much of the media has done). I also may be unique in actually preferring that Hardaway not apologize, that he stick to his beliefs (and let me know what they are) and bear the consequences of those beliefs. (As a side note, I have said the same thing about those who express hateful views, and then try to half-apologize in the wake of an angry response, about groups of which I am a member).

Fifth, I do feel bad for Hardaway that his world is falling down around him, because (listening to the radio interview) it sounds like he did not quite know what he was walking into. I am not suggesting that he was ambushed or that he is being treated unfairly. Only that he seems not to have given much thought to the real-world consequences of his statements. There may be something to a column that ESPN's Jeff Pearlman wrote several months ago, suggesting that we ought not look to athletes for political ideas, because many (not all, but many) live in a highly insulated world.

It is hard not to think of Al Campanis, whose long career as a scout and executive for the Dodgers (the team that lead the way in integrating baseball) ended abruptly in 1987 with some ignorant and incoherent (but far less hate-filled) comments about African-Americans lacking the "necessities" to be managers and general managers.

On the other hand, Campanis did kick-start the conversation that has lead, too slowly I admit, to improvements in the number of minorities in management and executive positions. Maybe this controversy will, in the end, advance the cause of gay athletes.


I wanted to add a gloss on Howard’s remarks. I have the pleasure of being his colleague at FIU and he came in yesterday as I was writing David Stern a grateful letter for his exceptionally swift and – in my opinion – proportional response to Hardaway’s comment. More reactions like Stern’s would go a long way toward reducing homophobia in professional sports. At the same time, they would also make “better bigots” who – out of self-preservation rather than conviction – would watch what they say for the sake of their careers. That’s a speech cost, though, because the issue is probably best thrashed out in the public sphere through sincere arguments, not self-serving ones.

Which brings me to the main point: one “unfair” cost which Hardaway is now stuck with is being the victim of the pervasively heterosexist social arrangements which require – as one of their flying buttresses – the segregation of the sexes in public places (like bathrooms and showers). My sense is that sex segregation of this sort flows from some version of the following:
1. males are straight
2. straight males are sexually attracted to females but not to other males
3. seeing attractive examples of the objects of your affection naked and wet may lead to sexual stuff
4. sexual mischief in public should be avoided
5. so, let’s segregate males from females in public spaces.

This makes perfect sense if everyone is straight. (Although this kind of segregation may stunt a certain kind of emotional and sexual maturity.) But if gay people exist in these spaces, the logic breaks down because gay people in these spaces develop a different consciousness: one, we get windfall benefits to the extent that we see beauty in a form that sex-segregation severely limits for heterosexuals (I think that this is the only windfall that we get except maybe for escaping federal tax rules that limit the deductibility of losses between married parties etc.); and, two, we learn to sublimate our reactions to who may be the objects of our desire into socially appropriate behavior, i.e. restraint and a sense of decorum. There are breakdowns of this decorum, e.g. some of the shenanigans that go in on bathrooms sometimes, but these seem relatively isolated given the scope of the opportunity for mischief.

I do a thought experiment sometimes with my straight guy friends in which I ask them to imagine what it would be like to grow up showering among…all kinds of women…including female athletes. How would that play out? (There’s a great scene in Starship Troopers to this effect.) Survey says: “we would lose control,” “I would never want to be seen by a woman,” “the hot females wouldn’t shower,” and other honest answers. The point is that it would be big deal and that it could lead to significant uncomfortableness.

Gay people have already developed coping skills for this situation but some straight people may not have. Only it’s not their individual fault, in the same way that it’s not Hardaway’s individual fault that he’s a product of heterosexist sex-segregation and has never developed the presence of mind to deal with this situation. It’s not just homophobia, although that is certainly part of it.

Blogger jose -- 2/17/2007 4:14 PM  

The problem is that by attributing any positive quality at all to Hardaway's statement, it justifies it in the minds of America's bigots.

My local (tampa) PM drive sportstalk host has been defending Hardaway all week, while maintaining the "sick" nature of homosexual behavior. The more attention these kinds of attitudes get, the more people see them as normalized attitude. It would be better to interrogate where this bigotry comes from than appreciate his candor.

I agree with jose that our country's bizarre sexual segregation contributes greatly to our puritanical attitudes (which then erupt in true perversions) and I've made the point every time I go through the security line at the airport and get patted-down by a man. How do I know the man isn't gay and deriving physical pleasure from the experience? How does he know I am not gay and am not deriving physical pleasure from the experience? The entire concept is ludicrous if one contemplates it for more than five minutes.

Anonymous tim in tampa -- 2/17/2007 5:44 PM  

The only safe time to use the word "hate" is when refering to the weather.

Blogger The Dancing Bear -- 2/17/2007 7:32 PM  

1)Is the point of the argument Jose, that men and women should shower together. I do not think that is fair for all the people who deem against their religion to shower be in those situations with the opposite sex. So maybe the best solution to this issue is to have curtains in the showers. This way, you can get rid of both problems. men who are gay do not have to look at guys in the shower (I am not implying that they do) and people who are homophibic dont have to be afraid to shower with gay people.
2)Concerning the issue of gay players I htink t his is strictly a player issue, nothing to do with fans. Fans ultimately care about performance, and unlike black players when they came into the league and people were racists and able to see that they were black. Today, even if you know that a player is gay, you cannot tell on the court.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/17/2007 7:38 PM  

I am not sure fans only care about performance. It took people a long time to see past Blackness (see, e.g., the mail that Henry Aaron received when he was on the verge of breaking Babe Ruth's record) and just focus on performance. If and when a high-profile active player comes out, it will take many fans a long time to get past it.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 2/17/2007 7:58 PM  

What would be the implications out of curiousity if it became that 2 guys on one team were seeing eachother? There must be some legal issues, and I dont think that is something that fans will ever except.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/17/2007 8:14 PM  

Anonymous raises an interesting question. I would imagine (and I do not do employment law) that the legal issues would be no different than the legal issues surrounding any workplace relationship. The more interesting issue is extra-legal, going to how it would fly in the uniquely close-knit workplace of a professional sports team--especially in a sport like basketball, with only 12 players.

The only comparison we have at this point is coach/player relationships. This generally involves individual female athletes (Marion Jones, Jackie Joyner) and male coaches, but I recall hearing stories about it happening in team sports (again, male coaches/female athletes). It seems untoward, but it happens. Compare that with the fallout in 2000, Nancy Lieberman-Cline, then coach/GM of the WNBA Detroit Shock, was fired amid stories of a relationship with Anna DeForge, one of her players.

Of course, both examples should be the same: both raise generalized concern about romantic relationships within a small workplace. The fact that it is a same-sex, rather than opposite sex, relationship should not matter as to whether such relationship is a good idea or whether it should be subject to discipline. The only reason it becomes more than that (and that Lieberman was fired, where male coaches generally are not) is our basic discomfort with homosexuality. That is the point.

Finally, an anecdotal point. I had a friend in college (a woman) who was a cheerleader--the only sport in which men and women are on the same team. She told me they generally did not date within the team, largely out of trust and cohesiveness issues (how comfortable am I seeing another male cheerleader holding my girlfriend under her skirt). But, again, I am not sure there is or should be an analytical difference between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 2/17/2007 9:17 PM  


We cannot interrogate bigotry such as Hardaway's unless who get such candor so that we know who holds such views and why. As for your talkshow host: Assuming that someone, somewhere is talking back to him, I do not think his attitude is being normalized--I think it is being exposed for the ignorance that it is.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 2/17/2007 9:30 PM  

Was Tim Hardaway waaay off base saying what he said? You bet!

Is he wrong in holding those beliefs within himself? Well, that's a totally different question.

Assume he said what he truly believes - whether or not anyone else agrees with him. So, that makes him a pariah?

It seems to me that the intrinsic value of "free expression" is that views which are totally antithetical to one's own views are readily available for contemplation or confrontation. Tim Hardaway said some things that just don't resonate with many other folks. But, on the other hand, they express quite clearly the views of others in American society.

I suggest that Tim Hardaway should be "punished" for the horribly less than constructive way in which he expressed himself - - thereby framing this entire debate. But to say that there are no positive attributes to his thoughts is tantamount to saying that he should not have those thoughts. And that's not a vector heading I think we need to be on ...

By the way, part of free expression and free thinking is that one is free to "hate" whatever it is that one chooses to hate. As soon as someone else decides what are the bounds and the circumstances under which one can "hate", one has bounded "free thought" and "free expression." The more odious the expression; the more vigorously one must seek to defend its right to be heard.

Bottom Line: Tim Hardaway committed career hara-kiri. His days as a network commentator are in the rear-view mirror. That's his punishment for SAYING what he did. But there is no sin in his thinking what he did or what he thinks today or what he might think in the future - - so long as he does not ACT OUT on his hatreds.

Anonymous the sports curmudgeon -- 2/17/2007 9:36 PM  

Ditto, Tim, on the patting issue. It’s part and parcel of the same thing.

Re: Anonymous’ #1: I think that not being viewed as a sexual object is a privacy interest that deserves protection, so I like the curtain idea. Maybe a “cafeteria” plan approach? Imagine a single cross-sex locker room with zones for people want their own stall and zones for people who don’t. That would seem to leave the most options open to people, including for straight men and women who did not favor sex-segregation. That said, I often think that – if you are heterosexual – this sex segregation is a good thing because it promotes peace of mind: you have your guy spaces where you can relax and not think about sexual competition and you have the world of women, where you may have different objectives. When you’re gay you can’t really organize the world that way, for better or worse.

I’m hostile to the idea of “hate speech” so I like Sports Curmudgeon’s defense of what some see as “bad” speech. I think that you do the world a favor when you stake out a position clearly because that lets people figure out where they really stand, maybe with you, maybe against you.

Blogger jose -- 2/18/2007 12:39 AM  

I dont know about u but I know that some people find it hard to urinate in front of other men, I can only imagine what it would be like to o it next to a woman. Or going #2 in the bathroom, I do not think many men or women would like to do that next to someone of the opposite sex. Jose I like your idea of peace of mind becuase that is a good thing. Are you admitting to the fact that Heterosexuality is a normative activity than? Herego saying that bathrooms should be according to heterosexuality. Also I think separate bathrooms makes peole respect the opposite sex so much more. Not many guys want to hear about a gril using the bathroom. I realize I a not married, but I still am willing to wait.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/18/2007 10:16 AM  

I don’t think it’s normative in the sense that it’s better or more socially worthwhile; straightness is just numerically more frequent. And I do think that it’s harder for a gay person to find peace of mind in a (normatively) straight word; but a homosexual who is psychically successful accomplishes something that straight people are not called on to do, i.e. to develop a sense of self that survives consistent patterns of attack and criticism from family, judges, religious leaders, politicians, teachers, and other social institutions that are supposed to reflect the best of human values. Run that gauntlet successfully and your powers of critical reflection increase, which I think is a good thing for anyone who takes values seriously.

Athletes are a special case because they are sort of the totems of heterosexual masculinity, which gives them the power to change attitudes overnight in a way that a thousand activists working for a thousand days could never do. Rock Hudson did this in the context of AIDS when he came out. I hope that professional athletics has someone like that soon (God willing without being sick)

Blogger jose -- 2/18/2007 12:30 PM  

I don't think Randolph's comment is of the same character as Hardaway, and not just because Hardaway's is so bad.

There are lots of people in America who are fine with gay people living a gay lifestyle, but do not want to be personally involved. Call it a middle ground of acceptance.

Let's assume Randolph is Jewish (based on his first name), and let's also assume he is heterosexual. Now suppose he said he was fine with Christians "as long as you don't bring you Christianity on me." Would we be upset? I doubt it.

So why do we get upset if we substitute "gayness" for Christianity when Randolph is heterosexual? Because it is the hot topic of the day.

I don't find his comment unenlightened. It is not as accepting as it could be, but it isn't non-acceptance. It is non-participation; and that's different.

Blogger ChapelHeel -- 2/19/2007 10:08 PM  

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