May 17, 2011
When Suns president Rick Welts came out in Sunday's New York Times, he reopened discussion of the NBA's relationship with the LGBT community. While the league lags behind other businesses in providing a comfortable environment for gay people, there are signs that things are getting better. Discussion of this issue matters, and Welts has done a world of good just by going public with his sexual orientation. Plus, Welts' announcement was followed by former Villanova player Will Sheridan's revelation of his own sexuality, which ensures that this issue will be in the news cycle for some time.
However, no matter how many former players and executives come out of the closet, there's still some question as to whether NBA players would accept an openly gay teammate. Charles Barkley, for his part, thinks the NBA is ready and even went so far as to guess that everybody in the league has shared a locker room with a gay man. From Mike Wise of The Washington Post (via SB Nation):
"First of all, every player has played with gay guys. It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say, 'Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.' First of all, quit telling me what I think. I'd rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can't play." [...]
"Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin' idiot," Barkley said. "I would even say the same thing in college. Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person. [...]
Barkley's message: Don't worry. Deal with it.
"They're not going to do anything in the locker room," he said. "Doesn't work like that."
Barkley is right on at least one count here: The idea that gay men are incapable of suppressing their libidos and will stare at their teammates in the locker room is incredibly offensive and not terribly far afoot from suggestions about black men and the perils of miscegenation in previous eras. Any suggestion of the sort says more about the person who says it than the subject at hand.
But while Barkley shows an honorable ability to be open-minded here, he may also be confusing his beliefs for a consensus among NBA players. Given basic math and the regularity of player movement in the modern NBA, it's likely that most active players have shared the court with a gay man at some point in their careers and gotten along with them just fine.
Still, there are also NBA players whose religious beliefs preclude them from wholly accepting the lifestyles of gay people, and a combination of that bias and general ignorance could cause some awkward situations in a locker room. Players may care most about guys doing their jobs on the court -- players have figured out how to get along with people alleged to have committed sexual assault and teammates who don't pay back Bourré debts alike. But if an openly gay player were to fail to box out or take a charge in a key situation, who's to say that a teammate wouldn't question his masculinity behind closed doors? It's a disgusting thought, but it's the reality of bigotry.
Luckily, there's an easy solution that Barkley has demonstrated perfectly with these comments. As more players voice their support (or even just indifference), for hypothetical gay teammates, bigoted opinions will become as marginalized and taboo as Welts' and Sheridan's sexual orientations were in the past. If the NBA is in fact ready for an openly gay player, then they can prove it by making similar claims to what Barkley said to the Post. The best way to get rid of bigotry isn't to attack it with logic, but to make it increasingly rare. Here's hoping that more major NBA figures follow Barkley's lead.