Let’s get two things straight (no pun intended ... unless you thought it was funny) right now: John Amaechi is no hero for coming out as a gay man in retirement, and he was no coward for staying in the closet as a player.
For an entire week, I’ve listened to scores of opinions and read mountains of analysis, yet I remain unaware of anyone who has identified Amaechi for what he truly is: A good teammate.
The former NBA center has been praised by gay athletes such as Martina Navratilova and Esera Tuaolo as a pioneering role model, and ripped by gay sportswriter L.Z. Granderson of ESPN.com for not "manning up" and coming out during his playing days. Newly discovered "beacons of enlightenment" across the sports spectrum say an openly gay athlete in his prime could make it in our society and would advance tolerance everywhere if he only had the courage. What they do not address, however, is whether or not the hero’s teammates could make it as well.
The reason guys such as Amaechi remain quiet until their playing days are over is not because they’re afraid to make their statement and endure the inevitable backlash. They do it because they recognize that it’s the responsibility of everyone in a team sport to do whatever is best for the team, period.
Every athlete’s first goal and top priority should always be to help his team win a championship. It’s what they’re paid to do. Professional players spend hours, days and months sweating and bleeding together, all with the unified goal of winning a title. They play games to earn victories, not to make social statements.
Imagine trying to win in the circus that would engulf an NBA team the moment a player announced he was gay on Tuesday and showed up for practice on Wednesday. Imagine being one of his teammates, trying to focus on practice, the team, the upcoming opponent, the upcoming games. And imagine every question you’d face from every reporter in the country.
"How did you feel when you found out Eddie was gay? Does it make you uncomfortable? Do you notice anything different about him now? Did you ever suspect it before? How does this affect your season? Does this change the way you act in the locker room? Will it affect your friendship with him? Will your showering habits change? Is anyone else on the team gay?"
Don’t think so? Just look at the questions that were thrown at nearly every player in the league last week, including guys who never even played with Amaechi! Every last one of them has been put under the microscope for their responses, favorable and unfavorable alike. Putting teammates through that with an active gay player would be a nightmare scenario for any team to deal with and good teammates like Amaechi know it.
And aside from the media and fan scrutiny, the question of team chemistry and unity in the locker room is a very real one. Call it homophobic if you like, but more than one player responded to the hypothetical gay teammate question last week with potential shower implications. Surely, no one is actually afraid that a gay teammate might make an unwanted advance, buta general feeling of discomfort and awkwardness is legitimate. And what would happen to the first guy to request a separate showering arrangement? He’d be publicly denounced as a homophobe and his reputation destroyed.
John Amaechi’s former teammates and coaches should be thanking him this week — not for coming out or staying in — but for respecting them enough to avoid turning their seasons into surreal sideshows.
Sports personality Bob Frantz is a regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.