Amaechi vs. Hardaway: the battle of homophobia in sports

Homophobia is part and parcel of the world of male professional sports, and so, too, in the African-American community. However, with many African-American male professional athletes also of the hip-hop generation, the combination is lethal.

Tim Hardaway, a retired professional basketball player, is of this generation of hip-hop athletes. And in an interview on Miami’s sports radio station, 790 The Ticket, Hardaway was asked two weeks ago how he would interact with a gay teammate. The topic came up because of fellow former NBAer John Amaechi’s recent announcement, in his book “Man in the Middle,” that he is gay.

“You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people,” Hardaway said. “I’m homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.”

His vitriol, sadly, hurt more than just his post-career endorsements. It hurt the hundreds of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer sports enthusiasts and athletes that revered him.

“His words pollute the atmosphere,” Amaechi responded. “It creates an atmosphere that allows young gays and lesbians to be harassed in school, creates an atmosphere where in 33 states you can lose your job, and where anti-gay and lesbian issues are used for political gain. It’s an atmosphere that hurts all of us, not just gay people.”

For many of us in the African-American LGBTQ community, we were saddened by Hardaway’s remarks, but certainly not surprised. And although the NBA banished Hardaway from its All-Star weekend in Las Vegas because of his anti-gay remarks, and a number of public relations apologies immediately followed, Hardaway nonetheless expressed his true animus toward gays that even his first public apology couldn’t conceal.

“Yes, I regret it. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said I hate gay people or anything like that,” Hardaway said. “That was my mistake.”

But Hardaway’s homophobia is shaped by a particular type of black masculinity that no longer has to break through this country’s color barrier to represent the race and prove athletic prowess or manhood in sports.

It is now a black hyper-masculinity and urban aesthetic shaped by hip-hop culture and “video-mercials” that not only exploit women, but also unabashedly denigrate and go after lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. And they care little about its deleterious effects on all children – straight and gay.

The aggressive posturing and repudiation of LGBTQ people allows athletes like Hardaway to feel safe in the locker room by maintaining the myth that all the guys gathered on their team are heterosexual, and sexual attraction among them just does not exist.

“I don’t think he should be in the locker room while we are in the locker room,” Hardaway said during that Miami interview. “If you have 12 other ballplayers in your locker room that’s upset and can’t concentrate and always worried about him in the locker room or on the court or whatever, it’s going to be hard for your teammates to win and accept him as a teammate.”

This myth allows homophobic men like Hardaway to enjoy the homo-social setting of the male locker room that creates male-bonding – and the physical and emotional intimacy that goes on among them displayed as slaps on the buttocks, hugging, and kissing on the cheeks in a homoerotic context – while such behavior outside of the locker would be easily labeled as gay.

In his book, Amaechi states, “The NBA locker room was the most flamboyant place I’ve ever been. Guys flaunted their perfect bodies. They bragged about sexual exploits. They primped in front of the mirror, applying cologne and hair gel by the bucketful. They tried on each other’s $10,000 suits, admired each other’s rings and necklaces. It was an intense camaraderie that felt completely natural to them.”

However, LGBTQ professional athletes must constantly monitor how they are being perceived by teammates, coaches, and endorsers to avoid suspicion. They are expected to maintain a public silence so that their identity does not tarnish the rest of the team.

Today’s society awards celebrity status to professional athletes of all races, and the popularity of African-American hip-hop athletes has reached unprecedented levels; their influences go far beyond the court and field.

So, do these athletes have a responsibility to their fans and society?

While black hip-hop athletes no longer have to be representers of the race, they do need to remember how they got there.

Racism was addressed through sports when Jackie Robinson became the first black Major League Baseball player in 1947, and in this year’s landmark Super Bowl with its two black coaches.

Sports programs are a particular challenge when attempting to make schools, playgrounds, and locker rooms safe of our LGBTQ children.

But sports can also provide innumerable opportunities to teach valuable life lessons and can be a powerful influence in addressing myriad social issues. And eliminating homophobia can be one of them. That’s something Hardaway and his hip-hop cohorts need to think about.

Published in In Newsweekly and The Washington Blade, March 1, 2007.

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