The local NBA events of last week kept things sufficiently busy that the national NBA story of the week, Jason Collins’ declaration to Sports Illustrated that he was gay, passed on a secondary track. That can be a good thing, because it allows one to resist the tyranny of the urgent for — horror of digital horrors — a moment of reflection.
Seeing the widespread public support among prominent athletes for Collins was as gratifying as it was predictable. If an athlete didn’t like what Collins represented, he or she would have been washed away in a tide of sincere indignation supplemented by a strong current of political correctness.
Or, to coin a new verb, Broussarded.
Chris Broussard, an ESPN hoops commentator, fell into deep water by saying on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” show that homosexuality is against Biblical teachings. Not breaking news, but it turned out to be broken news.
“Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle — or an openly, like, premarital sex between heterosexuals,” he said. “If you are living that type of lifestyle, the Bible says you know them by their fruits, it says that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ.”
I don’t share Broussard’s beliefs, and don’t quite know what an open rebellion would look like in this case. I do give him props for having the same courage of his convictions that Collins has for becoming the first active player in major American pro team sports to volunteer that he is gay.
But Broussard, whose views were known to ESPN beforehand and offered up this thoughts as an answer to questions and not as a publicity stunt, was pilloried for being intolerant (at best). The backlash forced ESPN into an apology.
“We regret that a respectful discussion of personal viewpoints became a distraction from today’s news,” the self-proclaimed worldwide leader said in a statement. “ESPN is fully committed to diversity and welcomes Jason Collins’ announcement.”
Wait a minute. ESPN knew Broussard’s views. That’s why they put him on the show. Why have any regrets? How can his views be a distraction when they were a main point? And if ESPN welcomes diversity, why posture as if there is shame in Broussard’s views, which were diverse from ESPN’s corporate take?
This sort of conflicted thinking on the issue is spreading about the landscape. While the dismay in the gay community was predictable, a group called Family America was calling for Broussard’s resignation — and it’s a Christian group.
“Chris Broussard’s comments on Monday were really a hateful attack on Jason Collins and a profound misrepresentation of the compassionate teachings of Jesus Christ,” said Faithful America’s executive director, Michael Sherrard, in an interview with The Christian Post Thursday. “This is not how Christians who live in community and love another as called by the Gospel of Jesus Christ are to behave towards one another.”
Well then. I’ll leave the Biblical fight to the more theologically gifted.
Getting back to sports impact, the London Observer reported over the weekend eight soccer players in the English premiership have come out in private to the head of England’s Professional Footballers Association.
Seven of the players said their reason for not going public was potential media and fan reaction, not that of the locker room.
“The danger is what happens when a player comes out and gets loads of support and attention, but then starts playing badly. The worry is that fans will start getting on their backs and they may lose the confidence of their manager and it could be connected to their sexuality.”
England once before had an openly gay footballer. Striker Justin Fashanu came out in 1990 and played until 1994. But he committed suicide in 1997 at 37. The Observer reported he said he had not been prepared for the backlash that followed his disclosure, and that his football career suffered “heavy damage” as a consequence.
Yes, Fashanu’s ordeal was two decades ago. It was England, not the U.S. It was soccer, not basketball. But the current apprehension of the eight footballers speaks to the deeply, and often religiously rooted, fears in Britain, which are not that different from the American sports culture.
What is said by athletes for public consumption and what is felt often are two different things. Often in the same person. Two years ago Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 by the NBA for uttering a gay slur caught by TV cameras, for which he apologized.
Last week in a tweet Bryant seemed all enlightened:
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) April 29, 2013
So . . . which is it, Kobe? Maybe it’s both. Or neither. Whatever the truth, it does matter.
Some players are going to reject a gay teammate, some coaches won’t want the perceived headache and some ownerships will feel financial pressures from both sides of the issue. As games, interviews and Twitter become an ever-increasing platform for demonstrative religious expression for athletes, those players and their fans who share Broussard’s interpretation will not be bashful in making themselves heard, because they are the ones who feel their values are under siege.
While there is a broad analogy to the racial integration of major league baseball, in America, sexual orientation isn’t the same as having blacks and whites sharing the same locker rooms, Constitution, workplaces, schools and neighborhoods. Or Democrats and Republicans (or Huskies and Cougars) co-existing without discrimination.
This is about the last great male social taboo in America — a new kind of guy in the group shower, the team bus and long, often boring road trips. Even if it’s the same guy from the previous season. Some on the bus won’t cope. Telling them to “get over it” is way too easy.
Collins’s decision was a breakthrough. But as a free agent at 34, he may not be in uniform in the fall to experience what comes of coming out. The hope is that it’s nothing. But gay male athletes are staying closeted into 2013 because the issue of sexuality and sports in America is way complicated, mostly by money, as ESPN’s PR pratfall demonstrated (and as was the case in England, it was also tragic).
ESPN didn’t want to irk any among gays, conservatives, teams, leagues, Collins or Broussard. Nor is there a monolithic view among Christians.
In U.S. male team sports, millions of dollars, and many jobs, rise and fall on game and seasonal outcomes. When things don’t work out, blame so often falls, quickly and reflexively, upon the vulnerable. The best way to protect the vulnerable is when people stick together.
For quite a while now in America, that custom has been steadily disappearing.