Assessing the NBA's gay future

For those not interested in thinking about the growing relationship between sports and social issues, this is your warning to stop reading. Whether you like it or not, as a basketball fan, there are going to be times when sports and society become intertwined. Now is one of those times.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Phoenix Suns are not making a ton of headlines right now, at least not for basketball reasons. While talk will soon turn to what the Suns will do with the 13th pick in the draft, the big news on Planet Orange right now is the recent public announcement by Suns president and CEO Rick Welts that he is gay.

The immediate reactions, while mostly positive and supportive, ranged from praise of Welts’ courage to questions of why the fact is newsworthy. But no matter the attitude, it got the basketball world talking about a topic often avoided like the plague in all sports. From Charles Barkley to current Sun Grant Hill, many big basketball names are making their opinion known.

The NBA has been the most progressive of the major sports leagues in recent years and the Suns have been one of the more progressive teams with forward-thinking players who chose to take a stand against an immigration bill in the middle of a playoff series last year. The events following Welts’ announcement and Hill and Jared Dudley’s anti-bullying PSA only further solidify that.

But they have also sparked a number of questions about what is next in the NBA’s gay future. In the context of recent events, I’ll try to address those questions, citing the relevant sources.

When will the NBA see an openly gay player?

It’s hard to tell when the NBA environment will get to where a player is comfortable being openly gay, but Welts’ coming out is a step toward that. An out executive is much different than an out player for a number of reasons, but the fact that a prominent figure in an NBA organization is able to be out and so supported is an indication that at some point the same will apply to a player.

Former NBA player John Amaechi, who came out after retirement, said last week it will likely still be a while before a player feels comfortable coming out. One of the big reasons, Amaechi said, is the amount of prominent sports figures who “speak about gay people with such derision and utter disrespect that it would make it very difficult for the people around them to come out.”

While executives, and college athletes like former Villanova player Will Sheridan, coming out is progress, it may be at least a few more seasons before an active player does so.

However, it may be the case — and completely reasonable if it was — that a player does not feel a need to make his sexuality public. He may just share it with his teammates. Straight players do not publicly announce that they are straight so gay players might not feel a need to publicly announce they are gay.

Will an openly gay player have to be a star?

Amaechi made a point that he didn’t feel he could come out because his talent was replaceable. The implication is that a team would avoid signing a marginal player who could be a distraction or hinder team chemistry.

But if the player were a star with talent possessed by a select group of players in the league, would his sexuality be less of an issue? Absolutely. If an MVP-caliber player came out, he may encounter criticism and disrespect, but he would still start every game and still get paid top dollar. Hard to argue any other scenario.

But how much have the times changed since Amaechi was playing? Would a role player be risking his job by coming out? It depends, probably on the organization, but at the end of the day every team is trying to win and any player who can help make that happen somewhere is likely going to have a job.

Would teammates be comfortable with an openly gay player?

Sheridan’s teammates at Villanova all knew and didn’t care. Amaechi has said his teammates more or less knew but did not address it. Barkley said he had teammates that he knew were gay and he was still comfortable and never felt like they were going to hit on him or watch him undress.

“A guy is never going to put himself in that situation in a professional locker room,” Barkley said. “It never crossed my mind, and I never felt any different about the guy.”

Though players as a whole are probably even more open-minded and tolerant now than in Barkley’s days, not all will feel the same way Barkley did. This will likely be a case-by-case thing, but if teammates trust each other, it should be a non-issue.

Would being openly gay put a target on a player’s back?

You would like to think that players would not use a player’s sexual identity to get in his head on the court, but if Kevin Garnett’s “cancer patient” incident with Charlie Villanueva is any indication, few things are off limits when it comes to trash talk.

Be it out of legitimate dislike of homosexuals, immaturity or over-competitiveness, more than one player is likely to use a gay player’s difference against him. That’s simply a sad but true reality. However, being openly gay would not necessarily make the player an intentional target of malicious play. If a gay player gets fouled hard on a drive, it probably would have happened if he were straight, too.

How would fans react to an openly gay player?

Like many of the questions posed here, this one is not black and white. It is a fact that there are people out there who hate homosexuals. Those people would not accept or embrace a gay player. But there are probably more people who simply do not care about a player’s sexuality as long as he can play basketball well.

And if the support Welts has received is anything like what a player would receive, then the NBA might just be ready for an openly gay player sooner than we think.

Tags: Charles Barkley Grant Hill Jared Dudley John Amaechi Phoenix Suns Rick Welts

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