Charles Barkley, Gay Rights Hero

Will Leitch has a great piece on the sudden sea change in professional sports towards treating anti-gay sentiment as unprofessional and unacceptable. And he points to Charles Barkley as the man helping knock down the closet door in preparation for the first professional athlete to come out into the light:

As usual, at the center of the story was TNT analyst Charles Barkley, the iconoclast chatterbox. When asked about the fines, Barkley went off. “I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play,” he told the Washington Post. “Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin’ idiot. I would even say the same thing in college. Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person … I’ve been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can’t be in for any form of discrimination at all.” It was a cannon shot: It was one thing for Vogue intern Sean Avery to come out in favor of gay marriage. It was quite another for Charles Barkley, an NBA icon, to do so.

Barkley’s comments seemed to open a door. “You sensed a change in the atmosphere, and that often sort of presages something greater happening in the culture,” Buzinski says. “That is the kind of stuff we have not heard voiced before that publicly.” Next thing you knew, former Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin was on the cover of Out magazine, declaring his love for his gay older brother and saying, “If anyone comes out in those top four major sports … I guarantee you I’ll give him 100 percent support.” It became fashionable for sports franchises to do public-service announcements, like support for marriage equality (the Phoenix Suns, whose team president, Rick Welts, is gay) and “It Gets Better” (seven Major League Baseball franchises, most recently the Tampa Bay Rays). In a video released by the Baltimore Orioles, players declare, “You should never feel like you have to hide who you truly are.” The PSAs were greeted by the sports world with a surprising yawn.

Obviously it would be wonderful if pro sports had started fining and suspending people for using terms like “faggot” during play and employing homophobic slurs as motivational speech a long time ago. But I do wonder if the various leagues’ arrival at enlightenment at the same moment that homophobia’s becoming increasingly radioactive in all parts of the public sphere is the only way such fines ever would have worked with fans and with players. There don’t seem to have been players who have become martyrs after being fined for using anti-gay slurs during games — instead, Joakim Noah and Kobe Bryant were immediately and publicly contrite. Tim Hardaway’s repented of his anti-gay remarks and is now fighting religious conservatives who are trying to recall El Paso officials who have supported extending health care benefits to the partners of gay city employees. It would have been wonderful for sports to lead the fight for gay rights, but there’s no reason to expect they would have, not their history, not their conservative fan bases. Instead, I’ll take the leagues using their economic power to enforce societal standards. Athletes were never going to start this fight, but it would be great if they and sports executives could help end it.