I am catching up on some ESPN podcasts this evening from the past few days. There's tons of Amaechi/Hardaway stuff, so I wanted to offer a smattering.
On Friday, Mike Greenberg had Jeremy Schaap on the Mike and Mike show. Greenberg raised the question of whether we press professional athletes too hard on their political views. Greenie noted that this is an issue that came up alot of Michael Jordan who, for example, was asked to make comments in the aftermath of the LA riots in 1992, following the acquittal of the four officers accused of beating Rodney King. From Greenberg's website:
What this does remind me of is that oftentimes, I think we are quick to criticize public figures in general and, in this case, athletes, who will not take stands on an issue from time to time. The example I will always use is going all the way back to the L.A. riots in the early 90’s. I remember there was a lot of pressure on Michael Jordan, who I was covering on a day-to-day basis at that time, and who, at that time, was maybe the most famous person in the world, there was a lot of pressure being put on Jordan to make some sort of statement about that, basically, to ask for calm, to ask for people to calm down. Jordan wouldn’t do it, and a lot of people criticized him for it. But I always respected him for it, because I always felt he was actually saying, “I don’t know anything about what’s going on here. I would be talking about something I don’t know anything about.”
Schaap had a good response, noting first of all that Jordan wasn't just criticized for saying "I don't know anything, but also for commenting that 'Republicans wear sneakers, too.' Schaap, though, himself, left out the context for Jordan's sneaker comment. It's not that Jordan was being asked, in general, to endorse Democratic party positions. What he was asked to do was to endorse Harvey Gantt, an African American who challenged Jesse Helms' for the latter's North Carolina Senate seat in 1990. That election was historic for many reasons, including the famous eleventh hour commercials Helms ran, using inflammatory racialized commercials about affirmative action to beat back a fierce challenge from Gantt. That Jordan might want to avoid politics, in general, is one kind of issue. That his specific response to whether he supported Gantt against Helms, given the ugly racial history that Helms represented in a state in which Jordan had, obviously, close ties and in which his mentor, Dean Smith, took exceedingly courageous positions on race when it was unpopular and dangerous to do so, is arguably a disgrace.
Schaap continued, challenging the implication in Greenie's comments that athletes like Hardaway are in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't position:
"I don't think you can give Tim Hardaway a pass. It sounds like he was prepared to answer that question and he's certain;y equipped to answer a question about what it's like in an NBA locker-room. He's spent a lot of time in NBA lockerrooms...And, it sounds like he spent a lot of time thinking about this issue, and homosexuals in lockerrooms." In other words, Le Batard's question was fair, Hardaway answered by expressing strong feelings on the matter without having been forced into an awkward situation outside his comfort zone, and voila.
I should stop here and observe that I am having trouble remembering an issue, at least in recent memory, which has provoked such a sustained discussion throughout sports media on an issue that transcends the sports world. There is always a lurking conversation about race, gender, class, and other bigger issues in sports media, especially on sports talk radio. But, it's usually implicit, except for brief bursts, rather than an explicit focus of conversation. The Amaechi and now Amaechi/Hardaway discussion has provoked more direct conversation about one of those larger issues than any I can remember.
One issue that has come up in relation to the Amaechi disclosures is whether athletes should come out while they're still playing, rather than wait until after they retire and can make a buck, as Jim Leyritz (more about him below), suggested to Michael Kay on ESPN radio 1050 in New York.
Josh Elliott, subbing for Dan Patrick on the Big Show, rejected the suggestion:
"For those of you who say - if you want to make a difference, come out while you're still playing, I say 'are you kidding me?"... I still think that the views of NBA lockerrooms are accurately summed up by the spirit of Tim Hardaway's comments, if not the letter. Because, say what you will, but the gay community is the most persecuted, least sympathized with minority in America. Look no further than the 2008 presidential elections...Look at the Democrats...One's a woman...one's a man of racially mixed heritage, but with Black skin, and his name is Barack Obama... and either one could easily be the next president of the United States. Do you think there could ever be an openly gay person [who was a serious] presidential candidate? If you said yes, you're kidding yourself...so then you take that reality and move it to the hyper-masculinized world of professional sports...a bunch of guys naked...sitting around like they're having a midday steam and their exposure to real life is any degree of non-existence...[and there's no way they would accept that.] So, if you're telling John Amaechi to come out, to "man up" to be courageous...free speech fine, you can believe what you want...but...how could you look John Amaechi in the eye and tell him he made the wrong call...(in the light of Tim Hardaway's comments)."
Perhaps in the category of inadvertent support for Elliott's claim, Michael Kay, Yankees play by play announcer for YES and afternoon host on the aforementioned 1050, had Jim Leyritz on to talk about whether a guy could come nowadays. Kay's own view is that only a major star could - a marginal player, Kay believes, would end up losing his career. Leyritz agreed to a point, but also contended that someone like Amaechi should come out while they were playing, own up to their sexuality, and let the chips fall where they may.
Leyritz also described himself as not homophobic and then offered this interesting musing on whether he "suspected" that he had gay teammates:
"when I see children brought up in divorce, when they don't have a father and just have a mother those kids are a little more feminite (sic)...and they may not be gay, so you have to be careful..."
And, when Kay asked Leyritz whether he would treat a teammate differently, if he did think he was gay, Leyritz said no, but:
"you kind of took a shower after he did...I wasn't homophobic...as long as they're not hitting on me..."
With friends like these...
Kay himself, perhaps looking for a way to signal that he's not too soft , too liberal and too gay friendly (since he did condemn Hardaway as an idiot, a neanderthal, and not too bright...")rattled off the following diatribe (in snippet form):
"this country is built on the bedrock of free speech. He has every right to say it, every right...I hate thought police...do you have the right to be a racist...of course, you have that right...he's not hurting anybody by saying he hates gay people...too much in this country we try to control people's thoughts and feelings...we can't brainwash people...'Tim Hardaway does not have the right to hate gay people...' well you know what, he does have the right..."
"this country is moving too quickly, inexorably toward thought police...George Orwell was absolutely right in 1984...thought police..."
Kay clearly needs a primer on what Orwell was concerned about in 1984: criticizing someone for spewing hateful speech was not Orwell's pre-occupation. What did concern him was the way in which language could be manipulated by government to stamp out the possibility of disagreement, democratic exchange and independent thought. If Kay is suggesting that the forces of homophobia in this country are being marginalized, persecuted, denied access to an open, contentious dialogue due to government institutions that deny those forces such access then I have no idea what country he's been living in.
In any event, this free speech card is just a straw man. I have heard plenty of people condemn Hardaway's comments. I have not heard a single person say he doesn't have the right to say what he said.
Finally, I thought I'd check in on Stephen A, also a radio host on 1050. Stephen A. criticized Hardaway for his comments, describing them as "heinous" and having clearly crossed a line. He also had an interesting riff on what would have happened had Hardaway couched his objections in religious terms: "It would have been embraced differently...if he had dressed those statements in the cloak of religion...if it had been in the guise of religion...people wouldn't have had a problem with it..."
But, like Kay, Smith saved his angry diatribe not for homophobia in general, or Hardaway's comments in particular but for the "other side:" in this case, 'homosexuals' who equate their suffering with that of African Americans in America.
To those people, Smith said: "do me a favor and shut the hell up..." and repeatedly noted that homosexuality was a life-style choice, a behavior, "something you do between the sheets." This Smith said, could not possibly be compared to the persecution, the lynching, the 400 years of mistreatment suffered by Blacks in this country, because "there's nobody in this nation who's been persecuted like the Black folk in this country." Smith did defend other minority groups, including gays and especially Jews, about whom he said, after noting the persecution of millions in the holocaust "that's why I love Jewish folk...because they will not let people forget what they've been through..."
This isn't quite the same kind of straw man that Kay's free speech rant represents, because I have heard the comparison myself, though I think it's usually couched in the context in which Josh Elliott, above, puts it - as a commentary over what is acceptable and unacceptable prejudice today. It should be noted both that gays do suffer violent persecution, including murder and that gays were sent to concentration camps for being so during the Holocaust. More generally, the scientific consensus now is that being gay is not really a choice, and I find it hard to believe that Stephen A. would describe his own love for women merely as a lifestyle choice, a set of behaviors, rather than a fundamental part of who he is.
I don't disagree with Smith about the larger historical point, though it's comparing apples to oranges, but again, I am not sure what's in it for him to zero on that issue, when it's really not what's at stake on the question of how hospitable or not professional sports is for gay male athletes in particular.
In any event, as I said above, the sports world is having what is, in many ways, a unique conversation (unique for the sports world, that is), and that's a good thing.