Coming out in the NBA

Player in the shadowsMike Powell/Getty Images

When will closeted gay players feel comfortable emerging from the shadows?

Every now and again in basketball, somebody yells or tweets something anti-gay.

We scold. We examine social and cultural factors. We make it a teaching moment ... although many learn nothing.

Once the hand-wringing is over, we’re usually no closer to figuring out how we can drag the professional sports universe by the scruff of its neck into a world most of America lives in, where gay men are increasingly welcomed.

My lament: We discuss this only when temperatures are at their hottest. People are defensive and indignant. Emotions are raw.

Wouldn’t it be constructive, I find myself thinking, as each catharsis fails to lead to progress, if we could address this without either side feeling attacked?

As National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11 presents such an opportunity.

Last week, featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz came out as the sport’s first openly gay fighter.

Here was Cruz’s statement:

I've been fighting for more than 24 years and as I continue my ascendant career, I want to be true to myself. ... I want to try to be the best role model I can be for kids who might look into boxing as a sport and a professional career. I have and will always be a proud Puerto Rican. I have always been and always will be a proud gay man.

It’s about time someone came out with this kind of conviction. Cruz was bold and fervent yet at the same time dignified and declarative. His proclamation was delivered with certitude.

There were no disclaimers or qualifiers about how Cruz couldn’t hide anymore, how this was a move to turn the page on a life of fear. He didn’t prescribe anything for anybody else. It’s just Cruz defining pride on his terms and placing that definition in context:

”I’ve been fighting for more than 24 years and as I continue my ascendant career ...”

In other words, I’ve worked my ass off to get here and have earned the opportunity to live my life honestly.

Cruz’s message affirms something that rarely works its way into our conversation about gays in athletics: Coming out conforms to sports’ very mission.

What’s the mission? Overcoming adversity; achieving one’s full potential as a reward for a lifetime of work; dignity through mastery; building an identity for yourself through your performance. Hundreds of millions buy tickets, tune in and spend billions of dollars and hours to watch athletes apply their training while they scrap, dig and compete.

For team sports, sharing a goal also can be listed as one of those provisions. Team building is an exercise whose participants experience growth as a group with a common purpose, which brings us to the NBA, where, as we get set to launch the 2012-13 season, many of us continue to wait for an Orlando Cruz.

Asking the right question

“When’s it going to happen?”

It’s a question you field regularly if you’re an out, gay sportswriter who covers the league nationally, and one I’ve answered the same way for about four years: “Maybe five to 10 years.”

That estimate is a stab in the dark, largely because “when” is the wrong question or, at best, an ancillary one.

A closeted NBA player isn’t thumbing through a wall calendar looking for an appropriate date. More likely, he’s weighing the cost-benefit analysis of coming out. And whatever calculus he’s using, it’s telling him, “Not now.”

So rather than address “when,” the smarter query is, “How do we get there?”

It’s a broad, tricky question laced with contradictions and tangled variables. Who goes first: athlete or league? Does a player first need to come out as a means of educating the league, or does the league need to undergo education to create the conditions where a guy can come out with confidence?

The truth, as it usually does, lies somewhere in between. The first active NBA player to come out will need some reassurance that he’s not putting his career in jeopardy, that he won’t be blackballed by teams that don’t want to infect their locker room with a gay player or, at the very least, would prefer not to deal with distractions.

He also won’t have any guarantees about how his teammates, opponents, coaches and fans would respond. Will they terrorize him with epithets and worse, ostracize him, exclude him from the camaraderie and informal dinners that teammates share? Will he have to absorb flagrant fouls on the court or have a packed house chant, “Broke-back Moun-tain!” when he steps to the foul line?

Both are serious workplace issues that would intimidate even the most resilient, willful athlete. Golden State Warriors president and COO Rick Welts came out in May 2011 while serving in a similar capacity with the Phoenix Suns. It took Welts decades to muster up the courage, but his announcement was a pivotal moment in this battle. Still, the trip from the relatively plush confines of an executive office to an NBA locker room is a long slog.

The big gamble

The first concern -- that an out player could suffer professional ruin -- is real, as John Amaechi has described eloquently in explaining why he delayed his coming out until after his retirement from the NBA, then building a promising career for himself as a psychologist, educator and entrepreneur.

Multiple league sources say that players perceived as gay have a harder time getting a fair look from NBA teams.

“From a front-office standpoint, anything that would take away from team chemistry, fair or not, is a concern,” said one league power broker. “The truth is that a lot of players don’t want that guy in the locker room. And, sadly, execs have to factor in how their star player and major guys are going to react.”

For NBA teams, it’s a risk-reward proposition, and the great unknown -- how teammates, a fan base and the media would react to an out gay player -- is a risk.

“If LeBron were gay, you think he’d have a problem staying in the league?” one source asked rhetorically. “But for someone who is interchangeable with a bunch of other candidates, you have to think about risk-reward. Do his assets outweigh any objections? Those objections can be that he’s a bad cultural fit. Or that he gets popped with guns and weed in the car. Or he’s a serial complainer. Or sits out two-a-days with a little hamstring tweak.”

Is being perceived as gay on that list of objections?

According to a number of players, execs and agents, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

The revelation here isn’t that homophobia is still rampant in the league. We already knew that. What's clear is that Amaechi’s comments are still very relevant. The problem isn't just the epithets shouted on the floor, in practice and inside the locker room. It’s that a player jeopardizes a career, security, a dream. He risks squandering years of work and the opportunity costs that come with that single-minded dedication of a craft.

Imagine for a second that you’re facing such a decision. If you choose Route A, one imaginable outcome would be facing daily abuse (quite possibly without any allies in the office), much of it public.

Even those co-workers who aren’t hostile to your decision will undoubtedly be forced to stomach all kinds of disruption in the office -- and that’s bound to breed resentment.

That’s the gambit faced by a closeted gay NBA player: The prospect of losing your job or, if you’re fortunate enough to keep it, being marginalized by almost everyone associated with the game.

In addition to all that, there’s your inner life, which might be even more oppressive than the public displays of hate, name-calling and ridicule. Sometimes the fear of what isn’t being said is more terrifying than the stuff that’s being said aloud.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time inside NBA locker rooms postgame. What is it like being in the locker room as a gay reporter? What goes through my mind as half-dressed athletes stand at their lockers? These are other questions I get asked by a fair number of people, gay and straight.

My sexual identity doesn’t even cross my mind. At 10:30 p.m. with a digital recorder in hand and a deadline looming, I’m like all the other writers -- crowded around the locker of the player I need a quote from, eager for him to hurry up and get dressed so I can write my story and get some dinner before all the restaurants in town are closed.

But every so often, I’ll experience a momentary, private cringe of panic. Almost all of those reporters and many of those players know I’m gay. This is a locker room, and there are half-naked and naked men around. My mind is full of basketball, X’s and O’s, and the editor back on the East Coast who’s up late waiting for my story. But am I freaking anybody out? Do people think I’m here to leer?

It is a little mortifying to imagine anybody bringing it up. And I’m in a locker room for 20 minutes now and again -- and never, say, in the showers. Now imagine being gay as a player on the team. That concern would loom over everything.

So why do it? Why come out in the NBA?

In 2007, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban offered two compelling reasons. The first was practical and entrepreneurial. The player would reap huge benefits as a hero to a large slice of Americans. Marketing and endorsement opportunities would be waiting on the other side of the announcement.

Cuban also made a more emotional appeal, saying, “When you do something that the whole world thinks is difficult and you stand up and just be who you are,” you’re doing something uniquely American. This perception of the American spirit dovetails with what the mission of sports is about, as discussed earlier.

Do those benefits outweigh the personal costs?

So far, 100 percent of closeted gay NBA players have determined that they don’t. That’s not to say Cuban is incorrect -- and I tend to agree with him -- but the sale hasn’t been made convincingly. That might be because agents or others close to the player in the know are offering advice to the contrary, or it might just be a visceral hunch, or fear of the unknown, or the simple belief that life, even with this burden of secrecy, has treated the player pretty well and will continue to if present conditions persist.

Orlando Cruz calculated things differently. He suggested that he couldn’t maximize the glory that comes with being a professional athlete without the self-worth that comes with honesty.

Cruz’s announcement also pivots the dialogue in an important way. It changes the score just a little in the loud and proud versus hate and shame game.

When we talk about it only after something hateful, gay people and their advocates fight a defensive battle. But when a guy comes out all on his own, it need not be a battle at all. We stop talking about words, and we start talking about people.

Cruz embodies the passion of a fighter, but he also conveys a very rational principle: Homosexuality can be easily tolerated. Imposing stress on people for such a thing isn’t decent and deprives them of human dignity.

This isn’t partisan. Nor should that violate any belief system. It should be, if not official policy, a part of the social contract at any workplace, whether that be a school, firehouse, accounting firm or NBA locker room. We can get along just fine, as we know from many, or perhaps even most, other workplaces in the U.S.

Where to now?

The NBA and men’s team sports in general are still well behind the curve, and it’s not something that can be legislated entirely by the league office -- although including the clause, “welcome all persons, regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation” in the Athlete Ally pledge, an agenda item at the Rookie Transition Program in August, was a positive step.

The league’s culture is a more complicated issue. Many of the players (and coaches and execs) we think of as good guys probably harbor some homophobia. And even if they don’t, I can think of more than a few players and coaches around the league who would be none too pleased if their locker room was engulfed in a media firestorm, even if it’s in service of a supposedly positive story.

Can you be a good guy if you contribute to a hostile environment? Are you nice and decent if you’re a model teammate in almost all respects except one?

If you’re an NBA player, coach or front-office exec, there are a few irrefutable facts to consider: There are gay players in your league, now and forever -- just as there are anywhere there’s a large group of people.

From a practical perspective, do you want those individuals to self-identify, or do you want them cowering in anonymity? Which makes for a more cohesive environment?

But more important, if you’re sincerely interested in creating the conditions in which basketball can be true to its mission, you should appreciate that being a good guy means valuing the worth and dignity of everyone in the game.