To many gays and lesbians who care about sports, this coming-out was (literally) the big one--the one that would officially open up the idea of homosexuality to a particular culture that has been anything but embracing.
For eons, participants in professional athletics had treated gays and lesbians not as people but slurs. Play soft and you're a faggot. Dress colorfully and you're queer. Step into the shower with a slightly effeminate teammate and you should make sure to grab soap on a rope.
Why, it wasn't all that long ago that one of my former Sports Illustrated colleagues walked through the locker room of the NBA's New Jersey Nets after a game while wearing (gasp!) a yellow scarf. The nerve! "Ho-mo-sex-u-al!" chanted David Benoit, an eminently forgettable forward. "Homo-sex-u-al!"
The joint broke out in snickers.
But in February 2007 the tide was surely about to turn. A former NBA center named John Amaechi appeared on ESPN's Outside the Lines to speak publicly about his life as a closeted professional athlete. No, Amaechi wasn't the first retired jock to come out. But he was easily the most recognizable: Not only was Amaechi a 6-foot-10, 270-pound mountain of a man, but he had spent his career battling head-to-head against the Shaquille O'Neals and Patrick Ewings and Tim Duncans of the league--without headgear to make him anonymous.
Though courageous men like Dave Kopay, Glenn Burke, Billy Bean, and Esera Tuaolo undeniably stand as trailblazers in the battle for gays to gain acceptance in professional sports, they also could walk down any American street without being noticed. Amaechi cannot. His size alone gives him away.
So when Amaechi appeared on Outside the Lines, then shortly thereafter released his autobiography, Man in the Middle, it was hard not to think this would finally serve as a gateway toward acceptance and equality. Amaechi had been retired for just three years. About half of the NBA's players had competed against him--known him as a peer, embraced him as a professional, and admired his feathery touch around the rim. Surely their minds would be opened by John Amaechi, gay man. Surely they would understand and accept.
Over this past year, when American attitudes about gays have seemed to shift dramatically in areas ranging from arts to politics to education, it is a sad, harsh truth that within pro sports Amaechi's actions accomplished absolutely, positively, 100% ... nothing.
Oh, there were two or three players who spoke on Amaechi's behalf, who expressed hope that more gay men would feel comfortable being their true selves. Said Grant Hill, now of the Phoenix Suns: "The fact that John has done this, maybe it will give others the comfort or confidence to come out as well, whether they are playing or retiring."
Hill's words, however, were drowned out by a tidal wave of bigotry. Famously, there was the rant of Tim Hardaway, the retired All-Star guard who told a radio host, "If [Amaechi] was on my team, I would really distance myself from him because I don't think that's right, and I don't think that he should be in the locker room while we're in the locker room. …