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The N-B-Gay: Outcomes of Coming Out

Pride Month is over, but the lack of LGBT representation in the NBA isn’t.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

This piece is primarily motivated by a list of currently out LGBT players in the NBA:

It’s quite a list. It’s why the Suns’ Ryan Resch - their vice president of basketball strategy and evaluation, in case you didn’t know - made headlines when he came out this June. I’ll admit that I rolled my eyes a bit. But in a sport where literally zero of the ~450 players are out, it was newsworthy. It also spurred the following, admittedly belated reflection the state of LGBT representation in men’s basketball, with a spotlight on the Bucks’ Pride Night.

Let’s start by placing the issue of LGBT representation in context. The NBA is one of several professional men’s sports leagues in the United States. The US has been increasingly accepting of LGBT folks, although the trajectory has been rockier for transgender individuals. However, acceptance is far from 100%, with recent evidence including Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill (and a variety of copycats around the country) and three-quarters of the Republican members of the House voting against a bill codifying gay marriage into law. Unfortunately, there remains plenty of justification for not wanting to be out in the US; blame should not fall squarely on the NBA and other professional men’s sports leagues.

Further, these leagues share a common denominator of maintaining ideals of masculinity that are often viewed as orthogonal to being LGBT. LGBT men are stereotypically considered weak, in contrast to the strength required to play sports. Moreover, stereotypes of LGBT men as effeminate clash with broader (albeit weakening) societal perceptions of sports as a masculine domain. These societal ideals find footing in men’s professional sports and likewise permeate cultures within these sports. Again, this is not unique to the NBA, but cannot simply be condoned.

In terms of the NBA specifically, the league has done somewhat well compared to other professional men’s sports leagues. By my count, there are two former players who were out during their time in the league: Jason Collins and John Amaechi. (See if you come to a different conclusion from this confusing list of LGBT players and allies.) Not a lot, sure, but more than other sports! A decent number of teams host Pride Nights, a lot of people affiliated with the league (players, coaches, staff, executives, and so on) have offered myriad statements and forms of support, and the league itself has put its money where its mouth is. The NFL... is getting there.

Yet, it has also had its share of mishaps. Although the prevalence of Pride Night involves a variety of factors besides acceptance (including the sheer number of regular season games and whether they play during Pride Month), almost every team in the MLB and the MLS seems to have a Pride Night. There are too many incidents of gay slurs to link individually, but KD’s texts to the actor Michael Rapaport are particularly egregious, very few of which are punished beyond a slap on the wrist. And, perhaps most notably, there is the damning list of current out players that began this article.

Taken together, there are a variety of extrinsic reasons why current NBA players would not feel comfortable coming out, mostly stemming from society at large and its perceptions of men’s sports in particular. That makes it all the more important that factors intrinsic to the NBA are supportive of LGBT representation. One of those factors is Pride Night, which I turn to next.

On January 22nd, the Bucks celebrated their fifth annual Pride Night against the Kings. Fans could buy a special ticket package for the game that included a ticket and some pretty dope rainbow socks with a Bucks logo. Some of the proceeds from the ticket packages went to local LGBT organizations, like the MKE LGBT Community Center and Wisconsin’s LGBT Chamber of Commerce, which were also highlighted during the broadcast. Drag queens highlighted the halftime show and local LGBT-owned eateries manned kiosks in the stadium. In other words, there was a lot of good, intentional work spotlighting and uplifting the local LGBT community.

There were also a lot of rainbows. Like, a lot of rainbows. When some announcers said LGBT, it sounded as if they were saying it for the first time, with hesitation over which letter should come next. (To be fair, three of the four letters rhyme, and there are many variants that add Q, A, I, +, and so on.) They highlighted the food at the LGBT-owned eateries and implored the importance of eating LGBT cuisine - which apparently exists.

I recognize that the festivities were geared towards the LGBT community in Milwaukee, rather than the (absent) LGBT players on the court. The Bucks also celebrate several other events where those being celebrated are not necessarily on the court: Women’s History Month, for instance. At the end of the day, though, the festivities still felt discordant for a sport with no currently out players.

Is the solution for the lack of LGBT representation in the NBA to can Pride Night? Probably not. But a little representation would go a long way towards legitimizing the event. So why isn’t it there?

It is mathematically possible that there are no LGBT players in the league. Although recent estimates are higher, let’s say that 5% of the population identifies as LGBT. That means that the odds that all NBA players are straight is 95% to the power of 450 - the chance that Player 1 is straight multiplied by the chance the Player 2 is straight and so on. That leaves a whopping nine billionths of a percent chance that every player in the NBA is straight: .000000009%, for our decimally inclined folks. In sum, there are probably at least a handful of current LGBT players.

It is likely that these players perceive that they would not feel supported if they came out. These perceptions may not map onto reality, but to the extent that these perceptions are based on real homophobia within the Bucks or the NBA, it’s a problem. They would also feel the pressure of being the only out player in the league - a pressure that only exists because there are no other currently out players. To be clear: the problem is not that these players aren’t brave enough to come out. The problem is that the systems they are in do not make them feel comfortable doing so.

Some argue that, while player’s conduct on the court is able to be dissected at length, their conduct off the court is none of our business. Fair enough. But we receive a healthy dosage of off-the-court content anyway, especially via social media. Giannis routinely posts pictures and videos of his girlfriend. Jrue and his wife are constantly in the news for their philanthropy, although she was a professional athlete in her own right. Khris has like a billion kids. Whether we like it or not, we know a lot about athletes’ private lives, including that they are straight.

Ultimately, I hope that the cultural tide in favor of LGBT equality will continue to work its way into the more resistant crevices, including certain factions in the United States, men’s professional sports, and the NBA. The NBA and its players have relatively accepting and proactive, which is one of many factors that bolsters this LGBT fan’s support. And yet - speaking on my own behalf and not from some mythical monolithic LGBT perspective - the lack of representation remains a blot on the NBA that can be balanced against but not truly outweighed by verbal and financial support. Until fans in the stands at Pride Night can seem themselves in the players on the court, the NBA’s support of the LGBT community still comes off as hollow.