Tackling homophobia in the NBA – making progress, or are we?

As pride month draws to a close, the struggle of LGBTQ+ athletes does not. There are problems with LGBTQ+ discrimination in almost all sports around the world, but as this is a basketball website, it seems appropriate to look into the NBA’s standing on the matter.

Perhaps the most suitable place to start is looking at the number of openly homosexual athletes currently in the NBA: 0, nil, none to be seen. Seems unlikely doesn’t it? Especially when you realise that 32 percent of the athletes playing in the most recent WNBA All-Star game were openly LGBTQ+. With recent estimates of the United States’ LGBTQ+ population sitting at 4.5 percent (according to 2017 data), the idea that none of the 450+ players on current NBA rosters are homosexual is difficult to believe.

In the history of the NBA, there has been one active openly homosexual player, Jason Collins, who came out as gay after the conclusion of the 2012-13 season, leaving the Washington Wizards as a free agent. It was not until 23 February, 2014, that Collins signed with the New Jersey Nets on a 10-day contract, and then another, and then he stayed with the team until the end of the season before retiring. It is important to note that during his first few days with the Nets, Collins’ jersey rose to the top of sales on the NBA online store. Clearly there is a significant proportion of the NBA fan-base ready to support LGBTQ+ players, however, five years on, not a single other player has felt comfortable enough to come out while still playing and under the spotlight.

Is this surprising? Perhaps not. All you have to do is look at how seriously the NBA takes homophobic attitudes and abuse and you can build a pretty clear idea of how much “support” LGBTQ+ players receive. For example, in November 2018, Nikola Jokić dropped the schoolyard “no homo” in a post-game interview and was subsequently fined $25,000 by the NBA.

While this may seem like a step in the right direction, this equates to 0.001 percent of his salary for that year, less than a drop in the ocean and certainly nowhere near enough to even make him consider changing his behaviour in the future. This is not intended as a crucifixion piece on Jokić, but it does illustrate that this is a problem that is not resolving. NBA players will desperately attempt to distance themselves from suggestions of them being anything other than straight, perhaps as the NBA offers such minimal protection to homosexual players.

This has been an ongoing problem, with previous punishments towards homophobic behaviour from Kobe Bryant, Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert being virtually negligible, and when LeBron James used the same “no homo” slur in an interview, there was no backlash whatsoever.

Even when there has been suspension punishment of players, it has been minimal (and I mean minimal). Back in 2015, Rajon Rondo infamously abused referee Bill Kennedy, berating “you’re a motherg ft… you’re a fg f*t Billy”. Naturally he apologized and “didn’t mean” his comments, but who is buying that? The NBA apparently. Rondo received a grand total ban of one game – incredibly little when considering the abhorrent severity of his insults. But when considering that this was likely the catalyst for Bill Kennedy coming out in a less than voluntary manner a short time later, the level of punishment (and thus how seriously the NBA viewed the situation) was embarrassing.

This is not to say that the players and NBA deserve to shoulder all the blame. In the same month as Jokic’s reprehensible comments, the Dwight Howard Saga revealed the antediluvian opinions of at least part of the NBA audience. On 24 November, 2018, Masin Elijè alleged that his “ex-boyfriend NBA player Dwight Howard” had been “threatening” and “harassing” him to hide the fact that they were in a sexual relationship.

While it is still unclear as to the validity of the allegations, the desperation of players to distance themselves from suggestions of that kind seems telling of the environment they live within. The fan-base reaction was particularly toxic and goes some way to explaining why Dwight Howard is alleged to have behaved this way.

Everyone knows that Twitter is a broadly hostile place, but the tweets responding to the allegations ranged from disgust at shaking his “homo ass hands” to rape jokes. And while this can be taken with a pinch of salt in the depressing world of Twitter, the sheer volume of tweets along these lines was staggeringly disappointing, showing that it’s not as small a minority as we would like to believe.

Crucially, the NBA currently offers no overt ruling or consistent statements on homophobic behaviour, and the attempts at curtailing it are limp and clearly not impactful.

Other sports suffer similar problems to the NBA in terms of homophobia, but they do appear to be making a greater effort to tackle them (admittedly with varying efficacy).

Just a week after the NBA was suffering the embarrassment of Jokić’s comments and Howard’s online abuse, the Premier League organised a week of LGBTQ+ celebration and support: flags were flown, captains wore rainbow armbands and laces, stadiums lit up in rainbow colours and the vital work of Stonewall was heavily advertised and emphasised.

Don’t get me wrong, football is far from perfect: homophobic chants are almost ubiquitous, no player in the top flight of English football is currently openly homosexual, but the first steps towards a safe, supportive environment are being taken. And when you are doing more poorly in tackling prejudice than football, that’s a sorry state of affairs. NBA teams have shown repeatedly that they are serious about tackling racial prejudice (for example, the recent Jazz fan rightfully receiving a lifetime ban for racist abuse of Westbrook) so why not other types?

Clearly, homophobia is an issue that runs deep in society and that needs to be tackled socially. However, the bottom line seems that if the NBA ruling bodies do not produce a strong stance to illustrate a clear support for LGBTQ+ athletes and a meaningful non-tolerance of bigotry, then the likelihood of another player taking the same brave steps as Jason Collins currently seem slim to none.

They need to work with the likes of John Amaechi to take a stand, utilize the powerful voices of the top players (as other sports have done) and outline that abuse of this kind will not be tolerated in any form. Dwyane Wade recently made a crucial stand in representing the NBA in the LGBTQ+ community through online posts supporting his son at Pride.

He was particularly outspoken about the value of parents appreciating their children, whoever they may be. This progressive type of behaviour from an NBA hero is the type of thing that the NBA should be jumping on to support. These can be the first steps in making the 2019-20 season one to be proud of, and in the process they will begin to make the fans and players alike feel comfortable enough to be who they are, as everyone deserves to be.