Monday, February 12, 2007

Is the John Amaechi story much to do about nothing?

Editors note: "How Many Current Professional Athletes Are Gay?" written by Vernon "Jet" Gardner and originally published at Blogcritics.org is part of this blog/post. All respect due to Mr. Gardner.

Last Sunday the sports world celebrated the Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl XLI win and with it the well earned respect Tony Dungy, the Colts head coach, earned with leading his team to the ultimate prize in professional football. As much focus as it always centered around a Super Bowl game much more emphasis was put on this years Super Bowl in large part in recognition of both the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears coaches, the two teams that met in Super Bowl XLI, became the first two African American men to lead their respective teams to a Super Bowl appearance. As noteworthy as it was, it will be far more important when we as a society stop paying attention to the color of a man’s skin and spotlight his ability as a football coach and his ability to lead men. As far away as we are as a society to that day, it appears we are even farther away from the day we as a society will openly welcome and accept a homosexual athlete. Last week’s “coming out” party for John Amaechi demonstrated once again how the sports world looks at gay athletes.

“With teammates you have to be trustworthy, and if you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy. So that's like the number one thing as teammates . . . we all trust each other. You've heard of the in-room locker room code. What happens in the locker room stays there. It's a trust factor,” are the words LeBron James told the media when asked how he felt about hearing the news that John Amaechi had come out of the closet.

James is only 22 and his years of inexperience came shining through when he shared this statement. We all live with secrets. How many of LeBron’s teammates in the four years he’s been a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers have ‘cheated’ on their wives when they were on the road with LeBron and his teammates, and how many of those teammates felt they couldn’t share that information with their teammates. If you took what LeBron said seriously anyone’s secrets regardless of what the secret is should be shared in the confines of a locker room?

The Sixers' Shavlik Randolph summed up how he felt about the issue of a current NBA player declaring he was gay with the following in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer: "As long as you don't bring your gayness on me, I'm fine. As far as business-wise, I'm sure I could play with him. But I think it would create a little awkwardness in the locker room."

An Eastern Conference general manager told The Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Aldridge (interesting that he insisted his name not be included in Aldridge’s article) told the paper: “We'd have to have a team meeting," he said. "I would address it with the player and let him know I thought we should have a team meeting. But if the player didn't want to come forward, I wouldn't bring it up to the team.”

Another GM, who also did not want to be named, said he wouldn't do anything.

"You hope your guys are mature enough to deal with it," he said. "This isn't a surprise to anybody. Why would we be any different from any other slice of society? It's basically 400 young men who represent an age group, and we've got every societal issue that everyone else in that age group has."

Firstly Randolph using the word “gayness” and the unnamed general manager insisting it was time for a meeting of the minds suggests just how homophobic the sports world remains how little those who adults who play games we all played as children understand and are willing to accept what they believe is deviant behavior.

Agents are hired by professional athletes to ensure their clients will earn as much money has they can in what is a limited professional career (the average career for a professional athlete is four years). One agent made it clear what he would say to a client if that athlete wanted to declare he was gay while he was still an active professional athlete.

"He shouldn't say anything," said the agent, who does not represent the player. "I really don't think it serves him any purpose. You're talking about a lot of intolerance with these ignorant ballplayers. I don't think it's worth it for him to do that. I think he should keep it private... What does he gain by that?"

There have been a handful of athletes (all once they had retired as active athletes) who announced they were gay: Roy Simmons was an offensive guard between 1979 and 1983 for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, who came out on The Donahue Show. He is one of only three NFL pros to acknowledge his homosexuality. Back in 1975 David Kopay, a running back in the NFL between 1964 and 1972, came out of the closet three years after he retired.

Kopay’s first lover was Washington Redskins all-star tight end Jerry Smith. From 1965-77 Smith caught 421 career passes and scored 60 touchdowns. He remained in the closet until he died in 1987, even after his affair was revealed in Kopay’s autobiography. Despite the revelation, he was voted one of the 70 greatest Redskins of all time in 2002.

In baseball, former A's/Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke is credited with being one of the inventors of the “high five.” Glenn came out in a 1982 Sports Illustrated article — three years after he was released from his contract with the A’s. It was rumored that he was traded to the A’s because Dodgers management suspected he was gay. The hatred and depression of ending his career at 26 led to drugs and he wound up a street person in the San Francisco Bay area, dying alone and broke in 1995.

Esera Tuaolo, veteran of the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, and Atlanta Falcons appeared on an October 2002 episode of HBO's Real Sports. Upon seeing this, San Francisco 49ers running back Garrison Hearst was quoted as publicly announcing “I don’t want any faggots on my team,” and later had to apologize for it. Before making peace with the negative reactions Tuaolo had considered suicide after bouts of depression and intense loneliness. Fortunately with the help of some of his former teammates, a concerted effort of the gay and lesbian community to stand by him, and his lover, Esera now leads a happy life.

The story is very different for women who declare their sexuality. Martina Navratilova the tennis great came out as a lesbian in the New York Daily News in 1982. Navratilova remains one of the most respected and cherished tennis players in the history of the sport. The admiration the sports world has for Navratilova pales in comparison to the awe people have for Billie Jean King.

She was forced out into the Gay Rights forum when her ex-lover sued her for “Galimony,” which fortunately didn’t seem to hurt her career at all.

According to an April 12, 2005 Sports Illustrated poll, sports fans are far more accepting of lesbians in sports than gay men. Overall though, in the same poll 86 percent of Americans think that openly gay male athletes should be able to play in team sports. However, the poll went on to say that 68 percent of respondents think it hurts an athlete’s career to be openly gay.

Jim Buzinski co-founder for outsports.com (a gay and lesbian sports related website) when asked by SBN if a current male athlete announced he was gay, what marketing and endorsement opportunities would be open to a male athlete responded with the following:

“In theory, he could endorse gay-themed products and services like cruises, but my guess is that he might not want to he seen as being "ghettozied" by identifying too closely with a "gay-only" product. This athlete might instead seek endorsements for products that have a broader appeal, perhaps targeting a younger, hip audiences that embraces his sexuality as opposed to being turned off by it -- the kind of demographic that watches the "Daily Show.", Buzinski told SBN

What a companies does Buzinski believe would focus their efforts on reaching the gay community would be interested in working with a gay male (current athlete)"

“Cruise lines that cater to gays, health clubs, clothing manufacturers, and I would imagine any company that targets a gay audience in some way. Many corporations now have gay/lesbian parts of their marketing plan. Maybe Ikea can shoot a spot with the player and his boyfriend decorating their home.”

When Sheryl Swoopes announced she was gay the story was treated largely with indifference. Why does Buzinski believe the sports world is more accepting of female homosexual athletes than male homosexual athletes?

“Well, most straight guys seem to fantasize about lesbians, so maybe that has something to do with it. That was sort-of tongue in cheek. But the stereotype is that many women athletes are lesbian, so one announcing it is seen as "no-duh" kind of news. On the other hand, gay men have historically been ridiculed as weak and not masculine, the opposite of how we view athletes.

“A male jock coming out still surprises people. Plus, in a culture still dominated by men, openly gay males can be perceived as some sort of threat to what had been the established order. Many men can't seem to get their minds off of the whole "showering together" idea; we must have the cleanest athletes in the world. The irony, of course, is that pro athletes have been showering with gay teammates forever without incident, but they just didn't know it.” Buzinski told SBN.

Outsports.com’s Cyd Zeigler jr. in a feature titled “The gay-friendly worldwide leader in sports” made it clear when it comes to ESPN, the most important sports media related entity is interested in sports fans regardless of their sexual preferences.

“While some people may want to take this place and attach it to the sports landscape, we are much different,” ESPN Senior Vice President and Director of News Vince Doria said. “There isn't a locker-room mentality up here. We have a lot of former players and coaches who work up here as analysts, and part of the introduction to this place is that they are crossing into another world up here. It is not an extension of the locker room. It's a workplace that is very sensitive to issues of race, gender and sexual orientation.”

Lorie Valle is the first-ever director of diversity at ESPN, a title Valle has held for three years.

“In order to understand the needs and wants of our diverse audience, everyone can't look the same or be from the same place,” Valle said. “Diversity of thought is the most important part of diversity.”

LZ Granderson (now a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine and a Page 2 columnist) made it clear in a column he wrote relating to Amaechi last week he’d be much more interested when and if a current athlete announces he is gay. For his part Granderson does the talk, he has been openly gay since his first day with ESPN The Magazine in 2004.

“I've been in journalism for about 13 years and I have never worked in an environment as supportive of its gay employees as I have at The Magazine,” Granderson told outsports.com. “The leadership at the company as a whole, and the Magazine specifically, is such that I knew the doors were always open to hear my concerns and the concerns of other gay people.”

“[Gay people] are in decision-making positions where we help dictate the direction of coverage, and our views are sought based upon on knowledge and not minimalized because of our orientation,” Granderson said.

When NFL defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo came out in 2002, some NFL players had some not-so-positive things to say about his sexuality. ESPN commentator Sean Salisbury (the subject of constant criticism among the media), a former teammate of Tuaolo with the Minnesota Vikings, came to his side in a column for ESPN.com.

Salisbury wrote: “There are people in the league who have that homophobic attitude, saying, ‘I could never play with anyone who's gay.’ It's the macho culture: In football, you're never supposed to cry, you're not supposed to be sensitive, you can't be friends with someone who's gay. My advice: Get over it. You've probably been playing with someone who's gay. If you think there aren't other gay players, you're crazy. And it takes a lot more of a man to do what Esera has done than it does to threaten someone for being different.”

ESPN commentator Trey Wingo is also incredibly gay-friendly, in part for a very personal reason.

“I've been aware of it my entire life,” Wingo told Outsports. “My cousin Tim is gay, and it's just been a part of who he is, and it's never been a issue in our family. It's no more a part of him than my gray hair is a part of me. It's a piece of who he is, it doesn't define him. I love and respect him for who he is, plain and simple.”

So when will ESPN have a gay on-air personality to go with the gay-friendly faces? It may just be a matter of being presented with a good candidate.

"We've never had that opportunity, but my personal opinion is that it would be a very interesting thing to do,” Doria said. “I think we're big enough to do something like that without being overly concerned about any risk with our viewers. I think it would be a good message to send. I'm sure there are gays up here whom I'm not aware of. I think I can speak for management that there wouldn't be any trepidation about that."

And what of John Amaechi – before he announced he was writing a book on his ‘career’ how good an NBA player was John Amaechi? The Salt Lake Tribune’s Steve Luhm called Amaechi “one of worst Jazz players ever”.

On July 19, 2001, the Utah Jazz signed Amaechi to a four-year, $12 million contract.

According to Luhm over the next two seasons - before being traded - the young Brit redefined the cliché, "Take the money and run."

Amaechi took about $6 million of Larry Miller's money and didn't run . . . didn't shoot . . . didn't rebound.

Looking back, the price tag for his astonishingly unproductive layover in Utah is mind-boggling.

Amaechi ended up being paid $5,660 for every minute played, $21,879 for every point scored and $32,258 for every rebound he ever grabbed for the Jazz.

Amaechi’s ability (or lack thereof) when if ever will a current superstar athlete or a retired mega male sports star declare he is a homosexual? Likely no where in the near future. And Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy, when it comes to diversity Dungy appears to have some serious issues when it comes to accepting an openly homosexual athlete.

According to various media reports: Dungy will be the honored guest of the Indiana Family Institute at the group's "Friends of the Family Banquet" in March. The organization, among other things, is against the right of same-sex couples to marry and against the right of gay people to adopt children in Indiana.

After winning the Super Bowl (Dungy echoed similar comments when the Colts won the AFC Championship game on January 21) crediting God with playing a key role in each key Colts victory. If Dungy believes God (and not Peyton Manning) was the key to the Colts finally winning a Super Bowl that is Dungy’s belief and should be respected as his and his alone. But should the first African American coach to win a Super Bowl be held in the highest possible esteem when he openly supports a group that doesn’t believe in diversity among men and women?

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: Outsports.com, The Washington Post, ESPN and the Absent-mind.com

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