John Amaechi: The Big Gay Barrier Got Bigger

Mordecai BrownerAnalyst IOctober 26, 2008

Quick: What's the difference between John Amaechi and the wide receiver formally known as Chad Johnson?

John Amaechi has a little bit more brains; Ocho Cinco has a ton more talent and relevance.

It's been over a year and a half since John Amaechi forced himself into relevance by grabbing a bullhorn and proclaiming his homosexuality to a world that had ignored him as a basketball player.  Suddenly, a man with an NBA impact similar to Tellis Frank and Jake Tsakalidis had become a household name—and, to many, a "martyr" for gay rights.

Yet I would argue that precisely because of John Amaechi, the forces keeping gay athletes in the proverbial closet are stronger than ever.  Rather than tearing down any invisible walls, he added an entirely new layer of bricks.

Amaechi, first and foremost, is an outsider to the NBA, independent of his sexuality.  A British man with an intellectual sheen, he would seem out-of-place with virtually any NBA clique.

He's also a shameless opportunist who has never viewed sports as his primary concern.  In his own words:  "I am not particularly passionate about sports themselves.  I am deeply invested in what I can do using sports."

Had Amaechi merely published a book about being a gay athlete in a team sport—which is more or less what Billy Bean did in 1999—he would certainly be helping the cause of gay athletes.  Instead, Amaechi became the self-appointed leader for all things gay basketball.  Not only was he part of the story, but he also anointed himself journalist, cultural critic, marketing manager, and quotation source.

Let's focus on four specific incidents:

1.  An oft-cited passage in Amaechi's book talks about male behavior in the NBA locker room, him finding the grooming and styling almost paradoxical for the image of the straight male athlete.

2.  Three months after his name burst onto the national sports scene, Amaechi reported back that the reaction to his coming-out was significantly less abrasive than he expected, but that there were former NBA teammates who should have called but hadn't yet.

3.  In May of this year, Amaechi made the following comments to a British magazine concerning race and homosexuality: "The juxtaposition of being gay and black in sports is especially powerful. Because if people were to guess who the gay people in sport were, they’d pick the white folk....because you’ve got this one stereotype of black people, that automatically means they can’t be gay."

4.  During the Olympic games, Amaechi again thrust himself into the spotlight (and provided the inspiration to write this) by reporting "tense" relations with the USA Basketball contingent and a conspicuously ambiguous interaction with Kobe Bryant:

"I ran into Kobe, and he was surprised to see me,'' Amaechi said. "It didn't go well.''

These four passages or instances show a complete lack of understanding for American culture and a startling amount of egocentric thought.

Male style has been a hallmark of heterosexual behavior since the dawn of time, and not just with humans.  Just as a bird's bright plumage signals health and strength to his female targets, male humans use fashion and accessories to showcase their wealth or power to potential mates.  It's the biological mechanism that connects a teenager's Mustang with Michael Irvin's pimp suits.

Ignoring this basic tenet of evolutionary behavior, Amaechi chose to utilize a stereotype that fails even the loosest test of scrutiny.  For someone who wished to destroy stereotypes, that appears fairly hypocritical.

And I sincerely question why he thought an NBA journeyman would face "the wrath of a nation under God."  People traditionally have to care to expend the energy necessary for wrath, and it must take an extreme amount of self-aggrandizing to see oneself as Hank Aaron, or to take a small sample of Americans as the whole country.

The truth is, Glenn Burke came out of the closet in the United States in 1982.  He was also black and an outstanding athlete who wound up as a journeyman-level baseball player.  Despite being black, gay, and spending most of the '80s on cocaine, Burke never received the "wrath of a nation."  Instead, when news broke that he was dying of AIDS, he received sympathy from his former teammates while inadvertently raising awareness for his devastating disease.

The fact that the reality of Burke completely contradicts the preconceptions John Amaechi had (or has) makes me question the latter's ability to comment on American life.  Gay athletes don't really have a color in America, nor is there some massive pent-up wrath waiting to pour upon them that's any different than normal sports-related anger.

In light of his poor perception and love of the spotlight, I have to question the authenticity of the "tension" at his appearance.  I don't know what happened, but I do know that if Tellis Frank or Jake Tsakalidis had walked up to Kobe Bryant, I wouldn't expect him to pay either the time of day unless he developed a relationship with them during their brief stay.

John Amaechi shouldn't be any different, and that's exactly a reality that John Amaechi hasn't yet wanted to face.

Instead of just being a former athlete who's gay, Amaechi has expected people to pay attention to him precisely because he's gay.  While other gay athletes have come out of the closet and even published books, none placed themselves on a higher pedestal than John Amaechi.

And that's precisely the problem.

When Jackie Robinson was about to break baseball's color barrier, Branch Rickey insisted that he not respond angrily to the insults he would surely face.  Rickey knew this would be an extremely hard thing for Robinson to do, but he understood something fundamental to breaking societal barriers, a tactic adopted by Thurgood Marshall during the legal battles of segregation when selecting litigants for test cases:

The person breaking the barrier must come off as a sympathetic figure, and not in any way reflect inherent anger, or anything but pure intentions.

Jackie Robinson was an athlete's athlete, an All-American football player who thrived on competition.  Having served in the military and lived his whole life in the States, he was every bit as American as the game itself.  His actions came across not as someone who wanted to break a racial barrier for his own gain, but rather a guy who just wanted to play ball and live his life.

Amaechi is a foreigner who shoots barbs at the NBA from the safety of retirement while selling books.  He actually wanted a Tim Hardaway to come along precisely so he could rebut him and move back into the spotlight: "People said that I should just shut up and go away—now they have to rethink that."

Yet it's becuase Amaechi is so different, so atypical of athletes in general, that he would've helped his cause so much more by choosing a different course of action.

Most athletes, gay or straight, are about competition first and foremost, winning championships, medals, games, playing time, what have you.  Very few athletes will do anything to jeopardize their ability to compete for these things.

In Robinson's case, he wanted to break the color barrier in order to have a competitive opportunity, and his competitive fire was one of the most significant factors in his success.

In contrast, competitive spirit does not help gay athletes break any barriers.  As comments by various NBA players pointed out, there is a latent trust issue at work in team sports.  Managing team chemistry can be harder than alchemy, and few true athletes on championship-aspiring teams want to risk that.

Furthermore, most true athletes want to be known as athletes first.  Karl Malone, for example, was an NBA player who happened to drive a truck, not a truck driver who happened to play in the NBA.

John Amaechi comes across as a gay man who happened to play in the NBA a long time ago.  His alliance with ESPN has virtually ensured that any athlete who chooses to come out of the closet during his prime will face an intensified spotlight that will make anything previous players faced looked dim. 

While Burke or Bean's revelations may have inspired athletes to believe that a solid player could be gay without fully disrupting their team, Amaechi's firestorm stifled such thoughts.  Hope that a player would be evaluated on his merits as an athlete and not because of his sexual status is gone.  The slightest misstep by a fellow player or coach will have their reputation tarnished like Shavlik Randolph's or destroyed like Tim Haradway's.

Most of these barriers are inherent to homosexuality and team athletics.  Amaechi made them worse, and even though I'm neither gay nor a professional athlete, I have to think the inhibiting factor is greater now than it was two years ago.

Unfortunately, many progressive-minded individuals suffer the delusion that any forward move is a wise move, even in the minefield of changing a culture.

Homosexuality and sports is still a big issue.  In the Beijing Olympics this past summer, held a year after Man in the Middle had been thrown in our collective cardboard box with Moneyball and Jose Canseco's scandalous diatribe, over 10,000 athletes participated.  One was an openly gay male.

Even with conservative statistics, at an absolute minimum 50+ athletes (1%) should have been gay males.

There's a serious issue here, and I'm pretty sure John Amaechi actually made it worse.

Gay athletes need someone in their prime who is good enough to contribute on a big-time club, someone who by his skill alone forces general managers, teammates, and coaches to confront and accept the athlete, and someone who can play with the humility and honesty necessary to truly break barriers.

Social change isn't easy.  Helping the high school quarterback who worries about his sexuality can't be done sipping tea and reading the New York Times while waiting for an uneducated player to use the wrong word.

It can't be done with pithy quotes or continually popping onto blogs and into magazines to comment on gay affairs.

It can't be done by selling books and it can't be done through endless soundbites and elaborated conceptions of hatred by a league that didn't like you too much when you were "straight."

"The narcissism and vanity is remarkable," Amaechi once said in response to NBA players imaging scenarios of a gay teammate hitting on them.

You know, John, I couldn't agree more.

Quote Sources and Consulted Works:,20867,21224200-23769,00.html


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