Silver Linings

by Irwin Soonachan

Last week everyone wondered how the NBA would react to Jason Collins becoming its first openly gay player, and found that for the most part players around the League barely shrugged.

It’s more uncertain how the older generation—the Gen Xers in their 40s and 50s who predominate the NBA’s infrastructure—will handle this new reality. Gen X grew up in a world where homophobic epithets were acceptable, locker room chatter equating male homosexuality with femininity or weakness was normal, and anyone who wasn’t ignorant of gay issues was viewed with suspicion.jason_collins

Take a recent segment on NBA Radio, the League’s Sirius XM outpost, in which sportswriter Frank Isola and former player Jerry Stackhouse interviewed comic DL Hughley about Collins.

First, Isola and Stackhouse joked about Stackhouse receiving a love letter from Isola and “finding his feminine side.” When Hughley came on he fell into an established routine about the Nets center being “too tall to be gay.” Stackhouse, who shared a locker room with Collins in 2010-11 with the Hawks, followed up by saying that gay men were 6-2 and under. Which culminated in this exchange:

Isola: Isn’t it true that most gay guys are not attracted to straight guys? Isn’t that the whole point?

Hughley: Why are you asking me? What the hell is that? What was that all about?

Stackhouse: That had to be rhetorical.

Hughley then linked America’s struggles to our population being “gayer.”

“If you look at us as a country we’re not the same as we were before,” he said. “We’re higher, we’re more gayer, we’re fatter, we’re not what we were. It’s like athletes who realize they aren’t what they were and work on other skill sets. Kobe can’t jump as high but he can still be great because he has other attributes that he’s developed. This country still thinks it’s Kobe Bryant at 23.”

“That’s a fair point,” agreed Isola.

Relative to some of the nastiness Collins has received elsewhere, it was relatively benign—there weren’t slurs, outrage or direct calls for violence. But this kind of old-fashioned locker room talk holds dangers of its own.

Imagine for a moment you’re a football player, a 6-3, 300-pound offensive lineman. You just turned down a scholarship from Penn State’s Joe Paterno, one of the best college coaches ever, to represent your home state and play for the University of Maryland. Even at 300 pounds, you’re so nimble that in high school you were an All-American wrestler. People treat you like a hero. At 19 years old you’ve got everything going for you, except these thoughts that keep worming into your brain, day and night, and you can’t get them out.

You’re pretty certain you’re gay, but people you look up to—older athletes, public figures—say things that make you wonder what that really makes you. They say people your size cannot be gay…gay people are causing America to decline…gay equates with feminine…You spend a lot of time alone in your dorm room thinking about it.

“I saw myself as a tough guy, a man’s man who likes to hang out with buddies, have a beer, watch a football game, watch a basketball game,” remembers Akil Patterson, who enrolled at Maryland in 2001. “Normal, everyday stuff that anyone who enjoys sports would want to do. There were times when I thought I can’t be gay or maybe I’m not part of the gay community because I like these things. As an athlete, sometimes I had the feeling I didn’t belong.”

Patterson started drinking to quiet his mind. He somehow held it together for a couple seasons until a teammate found gay porn on his computer. In turmoil, he transferred to tiny California University of Pennsylvania and became a DII All-American, towering over his competition—but he’d lost his chance to play against the best.

The NBA has gone out of its way to eliminate the most virulent and public forms of discriminatory behavior, including fining Kobe Bryant $100,000 for using a homophobic epithet against a ref. The League also formed an alliance with Patterson’s organization, AthleteAlly, to conduct sensitivity training for players. But according to Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer, the type of old-school guy talk heard on NBA Radio will be harder to address.

“Traditionally in America a core aspect of masculinity is being heterosexual,” Willer says. “A lot of men approach masculinity as something to be constantly proven, something you might lose. One way men demonstrate their masculinity is by asserting their heterosexuality.

“The next step is not only moving to a world where we don’t make fun of homosexuals, but also not being ashamed of the suggestion that we might ourselves be homosexual. It’s going to take American men a while to all embrace homosexuals as equals and not be insulted by the suggestion that they might be homosexual.”

The League’s Millenials seem to be taking that step, and polls suggest that’s reflective of their generation. But their parent’s generation might be slower to come around. Patterson believes there’s a silver lining in letting them air their discomfort, as Hughley et al did on NBA Radio.

“There might be underlying homophobia in this conversation,” he says, “but you have to understand this is the first time we’re having this conversation. Sometimes people don’t know how to respond, so they respond with a joke.”

A joke with some intent to it. Reached afterward for comment, a spokesperson for Hughley kept the comic’s flag planted firmly in the 20th Century: “DL stands by everything he said.”