Breaking Down Social Constructs in the NBA

Rick Welts disapprovingly watches Joakim Noah mouth an anti-gay slur at a Heat fan during the Eastern Conference Finals

(Guest contribution by Jordan Clark – 24/f/dc.)

Phoenix Suns President Rick Welts Announces He Is Gay
ESPN New York Radio Host Jared Max: ‘I Am Gay’
Joakim Noah Fined $50K for Anti-Gay Slur

Lately there have been some small developments in the world of professional sports that have brightened my outlook and made me feel a little better about my relationship with sports in general. I know these are small steps, but breaking down barriers and opening minds is slow on both sides.

– Prominent figures “coming out” — the president of the Phoenix Suns and Jared Max, New York radio host (someone I’ve never listened to, but whose career certainly depends on the broad acceptance of sports fans across demographic lines), just two of the most recent individuals from sports to come out

– NBA celebrities facing public scrutiny and official consequences for the conspicuous use of anti-gay slurs

Being young, liberal, and female, I don’t always find a welcome reception among fans of sports and am frequently faced with skepticism. It’s easy (for an asshole) to assume that a young woman alone in a sports bar is just looking for… well… something other than a beer and a big screen TV. I’ve had jerks yell at me in bars, or behave in aggressive, threatening or offensive ways that might be expected but shouldn’t have to be, when I just wanna watch a football game. But I’ve also had dear friends, with a polar opposite but still critical perspective, give me a hard time. They criticize me for participating in an industry which they believe is not only misguided, but is, in its prosperity, offensive to them personally and politically.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not consistently enraptured by the sports world, and I understand a lot of criticism of the sports industry is very well-founded, but I have derived such pleasure and such strong inspiration from sports! In fact, I find it heartbreaking — with an intensity equaled and paralleled by those exalted moments of inspiration — the stereotypes and prejudices that are often associated with the industry and followers thereof. The entire industry surrounding professional sports has some really glaring flaws and I’m not interested in re-hashing them right now; I just want to share the small fulfillment I felt as my often conflicting interests came a little bit untangled with these recent developments. In fact, these two came out in the last week, but there are others, and just googling it, I found this list of sports figures who have come out, just in the first months of 2011.

I hope that these announcements can help break down some stereotypes. First, by moving a good ol’ boy demographic, of people largely unfamiliar and uncomfortable with announcements of this kind, toward a more accepting and welcoming mindset. If there are small-minded bigots who are also fans of the Suns, or of this sports radio host, maybe it will convince them at the very least that gay people aren’t all the same, and maybe they’ve got more in common than they have dividing them — maybe gay people are just also people. And maybe seeing Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah scolded for their ignorance will translate to a lesson learned about their own ignorance.

Secondly, and perhaps by the same token, by reaching critics of the sports industry, who believe it to systemically reinforce troublesome social constructs and stereotypes, I hope they too can find a more open mind about sports and fans. And maybe they will recognize that Bryant and Noah aren’t the system — they’re just players, with their own (sometimes discouraging and offensive) thoughts and opinions. And that the system is taking measures to prevent people and incidents like these from dominating, spoiling, and distracting from the love of the game.

From inside sports and out, there are a lot of haters, who have startling mis-perceptions about who is with them and who they’re up against. Maybe these little stories can change a few minds in both groups about how black and white things really are(n’t). Even if nobody’s mind changes over recent events, I am proud that the system and stakeholders are speaking out and demonstrating basic respect.