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The locker room closet

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of the forthcoming "Welcome to Terrordome: The Pain Politics and Promise of Sports."

JOHN AMAECHI, to much fanfare, has become the first retired player in the history of the National Basketball Assn. to announce that he’s gay. The news came with publication of his book “Man in the Middle,” in which Amaechi details his life in the NBA closet. The five-year veteran of three clubs used to be a basketball footnote, more known for his British upbringing and penchant for poetry than anything he did on the court as a center. Now he is part of history, giving human form and voice to the spectral boogeyman of the professional locker room -- the gay athlete.

The rest of the male professional sports landscape in the U.S. is hardly a Castro Street conga line. The list of athletes who have come out of the closet can be checked off on one hand: former National Football League players Dave Kopay, Roy Simmons and Esera Tuaolo; and former Major League Baseball players Billy Bean and Glenn Burke. These men, like Amaechi, revealed their homosexuality after retirement. No male athlete has done so while in uniform.

Judging by the response of the NBA, Amaechi’s decision to conceal his homosexuality was all too understandable. Despite all the headlines his announcement has launched, there was still no mention of it on the NBA’s official website as of Friday.

With such notable exceptions as New York Knicks Coach Isiah Thomas and Amaechi’s former teammate, Grant Hill, the reaction of NBA players has been chilly. The harshest statement came from retired guard Tim Hardaway, who told Sports Radio last week that “I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people.” When asked how he would interact with a gay teammate, he said that “first of all, I wouldn’t want him on my team. And second of all, if he was on my team, I would ... really distance myself from him.”

LeBron James, who is the current face of the NBA, said: “You take showers together, you’re on the bus, you talk about things. With teammates, you have to be trustworthy. If you’re gay and you’re not admitting that you are, you’re not trustworthy. It’s the locker room code.” The most revealing part of James’ statement is his reference to the “locker room code.” The problem, he tells us, is that in the close-knit, locker room barracks, a gay player would upset the delicate balance of trust and unity necessary for success.

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Forget for a moment that most locker rooms today more closely resemble a suite at the Waldorf than Stalag 17: They are where players wear fluffy robes and play video games on flat-screen monitors; they’re not exactly war bunkers. Forget that this same argument was used to deny African Americans a place in pre-1940 locker rooms. Forget that the code plays into the stereotype that a gay man in a locker room is like a kid with a sweet tooth in a candy store.

The main problem with making “the locker room code” the issue, however, is that homophobia extends far beyond where pro athletes primp and disrobe. As Jeff Miller wrote last week in the Orange County Register: “For a society that loves to celebrate its remarkable progress, we remain pathetically stalled in yesterday in so many ways. The fact [that the Amaechi] story was received by many like a space alien would be at 7-Eleven says way too much.”

The reason that active players don’t come out of the closet is the price they would have to pay. To be a pro basketball star -- or a pro athlete, for that matter -- is to have your lottery ticket punched. There is fame, adulation and the material means to take family and friends along for the ride. When the choice becomes concealment or risking all that comes with professional athletics, it has historically been no choice at all. As Amaechi explained: “It’s terrifying. These people are looked at as stars, as NBA players. Any change to that would be psychologically, emotionally and financially devastating.”

This reality is why Amaechi seeks to do more than attack homophobic attitudes in pro leagues. “I’m not doing this to change the NBA,” he said. “I’m doing this for the high school quarterback who is thinking about sticking his head in a noose because he can’t come to grips with the fact he’s gay.” This is not an empty statement. According to one government report, gays and lesbians may account for up to 30% of all teenage suicides.

Amaechi says he has received many death threats since he came out, a stark reminder of something he told columnist Dave Kindred of the Sporting News several years ago: “If I die, the last thing I want people to say on my tombstone is that I put a ball through a hole.”

With considerable elan, that goal has now been achieved.


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