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Long way to go

Confronting homosexuality a major issue in sports

Posted: Wednesday February 7, 2007 4:40PM; Updated: Wednesday February 7, 2007 4:56PM
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Former NBA player John Amaechi will reveal that he is gay in a soon-to-be-released book.
Former NBA player John Amaechi will reveal that he is gay in a soon-to-be-released book.
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We've been patting ourselves on the back lately, celebrating how much progress the sports world has made in terms of racial equality. We're supposedly so colorblind that when two African-American coaches reached the Super Bowl last week, the general reaction was, "What? Dungy and Lovie are black? I hadn't noticed."

There's nothing wrong with taking pride in how far we've come in terms of race in sports. But before we start feeling all warm inside, we should realize that we still have miles to go before we can claim that we treat issues of homosexuality with the maturity we've started to develop toward race.

That has been made clear in recent days, with three stories that involve being gay. One of them is the tale of the notorious Snickers commercial, which you may have seen during the Super Bowl. (If you didn't, you're probably out of luck, because Snickers has pulled the ad.) In it, two men eat a Snickers bar from opposite ends, working their way toward each other until their lips meet. Horrified at their accidental kiss, they each rip out a chunk of chest hair to prove to themselves that they're still "manly," the implication being that men who kiss other men are not.

Gay rights groups objected to the commercial because of that implied message, causing Snickers to dump it. It's not surprising that some gays would be offended by the ad, but there was another message implicit in the commercial as well -- that many of us are like the two knuckleheads in the ad, utterly spooked by homosexuality, so uncomfortable with the issue that we go all goofy when confronted with the subject. In a way, heterosexuals should be just as offended as gays by the commercial, if not more so.

The two men in the commercial were fictional characters, but ex-NBA player John Amaechi has real-life stories to tell. Amaechi, a 6-foot-10 center who played for five seasons in the NBA for Orlando, Cleveland and Utah before retiring in 2003, will announce that he is gay in a soon-to-be-released book. Unsubstantiated rumors are flying about what Amaechi has to say about living a closeted life in the NBA, but the mere fact that he felt the need to keep his sexuality a secret while he was in the league speaks volumes about the negative attitude he perceived toward gays in sports.

Amaechi no doubt assumed that he would be much more of a pariah than players in the league who have been accused of sexual assault and domestic violence, not to mention those who have fathered multiple children out of wedlock. That sad truth is, he was probably right.

Amaechi's alma mater, Penn State, hasn't exactly been setting the perfect example for dealing with gay-related issues in a mature, sensitive manner, at least not in it's women's basketball program. Coach Rene Portland for years has dealt with accusations that she discriminates against lesbians, or those she believes to be lesbians, in her program. One of her former players, Jennifer Harris, sued Portland and Penn State in 2005, alleging that Portland dismissed her from the team because the coach thought Harris was a lesbian. Portland denies that she treated Harris or any other player differently because of sexual orientation, but in 2006, the school's Affirmative Action Office found that she was in violation of Penn State's anti-discrimination policy on the basis of sexual orientation, and she was fined $10,000 and ordered to undergo sensitivity training. The AAO's report concluded that Portland had created "a hostile, intimidating and offensive environment" for Harris.

On Monday, the case was settled out of court for undisclosed terms, but that won't end the suspicions that Portland has had a "no-lesbian" policy in her program, as some former players and prospective recruits have alleged. Portland will continue to be under a microscope, and Penn State will continue to be criticized for employing a coach so widely believed to have a discriminatory policy.

And so we go stumbling on, not quite sure what to do or how to behave when it comes to issues of gays in sports. We're like the characters on Seinfeld, visibly uncomfortable with the notion of homosexuality even while we repeat "not that there's anything wrong with that." In its attitude toward homosexuality, the sports world is years behind its attitude toward racial issues. Those two guys in the Snickers commercial certainly looked foolish in the way they dealt with the idea of being gay, but they are not alone.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor writes about a Hot Button topic every Monday on SI.com.