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Friday, February 9, 2007
Ignorant jocks need to stop the foolishness

By Jeff Pearlman
Special to Page 2

In response to the shocking, troubling, earth-rattling news that the National Basketball Association – our National Basketball Association – once housed one of those (lock the barn!) gay folk, commissioner David Stern said it best. "We have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always 'Have you got game?' That's it, end of inquiry."

Stern's comments were expressed in proper sentences.

Stern's comments were phrased somewhat eloquently.

Stern's comments were encapsulated in fewer than 25 words.

Stern's comments were, well, inane.

I have been a sportswriter for nearly 13 years. I have been in clubhouses and training rooms, baseball stadiums and horse barns. I've watched Barry Zito surf, Cord McCoy lasso a cow, Troy Aikman spit into a cup, J.D. Drew praise Jesus and Gary Sheffield praise money. I've chronicled what it's like to win, what it's like to lose, what it's like to love a teammate and what it's like to hate one. I've seen envy and elation, hunger and disinterest, excruciating pain and unrivaled pride.

Here is what I can say, with 100 percent certainty: Most jocks don't like, to use the popular word of choice from the locker rooms, the "fa----s."

I know ... I know. Watch my language. But let's be honest. That's what they are to the majority of professional athletes: Not gays. Not homosexuals.

F------ fa----s, often.

I have witnessed the scene time and time again. Basketball player wears a yellow jacket with matching shoes – he's a "fa----." Baseball player jogs into the dugout and trips over a bat -- "fa----." Wide receiver avoids crossing the middle of the field – "What the hell are you, a f------ fa----?" Why, just a few months back Steelers linebacker Joey Porter dipped into his linguistic catalogue and pulled out "Oreo fa----" to describe Kellen Winslow of the Browns.

I'm not 100 percent sure what that means, but it doesn't sound like an invitation to tea. (To his credit, Porter apologized. To his discredit, his apology was, "I didn't mean to offend anybody but Kellen Winslow.") In many ways, it'd be overly simplistic to merely blame the athletes without searching a bit deeper. For many African-Americans, a disapproval of homosexuality comes with the racial territory. Being gay is looked upon as something ... weird. Something ... just not right. It stems from grandpa. And grandpa's grandpa. As rapper Kanye West noted last year, it's hypocritical for African-Americans to complain about bigotry when they apply their own form to others. From a young age, West noted, you're taught that gays aren't normal. Aren't righteous. It's not an easy cycle to snap.

Personally, I have a much harder time grasping the locker-room Bible thumpers; those myriad competitors who attend daily chapel, speak of love and outreach and togetherness – then damn gays to an eternity of hell. I've rarely heard a born-again Christian athlete openly complain about a teammate's vulgar language, or a teammate's blowing off autograph seekers, or a teammate's cheating by taking steroids. Factually, never has a born-again ballplayer refused to play with someone because he committed infidelity. But I promise you – in the spirit of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese – that when the first active athlete does come out, there will be trade demands from devout Christians.

Myriad trade demands.

What Stern misses in his naive assessment of the league is that homosexuality = confusion, and confusion = discomfort. Last year, while working on a Newsday profile of Cincinnati Reds pitcher Joe Valentine and his lesbian parents, I stumbled upon T.J. Tucker, a Washington Nationals pitcher. When I asked T.J. whether he'd be comfortable with a gay teammate, he shrugged awkwardly. "I've got nothing against those people," he said.

"But I don't get why anyone would want to be like that."

Fast forward to yesterday, when Philadelphia 76ers forward Shavlik Randolph responded to the new revelation by saying, "As long as you don't bring your gayness on me, I'm fine."

Your gayness?

"Many athletes just don't know," says Brian Johnson, a former major league catcher. "They think being gay is this horrible thing that needs to be feared. It's pathetic." While coming up through the minor leagues, one of Johnson's roommates was Billy Bean, the outfielder who later came out of the closet. Johnson saw Bean's torment; saw the struggles he endured in the areas of sexuality. "We just all need to grow up and accept people for who they are. A gay athlete isn't plotting to jump you in the shower. He's just another athlete."

Call me a New York liberal, call me a gay-loving freak, call me Wayne Krenchicki – here's an idea: Let's stop with the foolishness and the fear mongering and the obscure biblical references, and let's start using our brains. Gays are not going to dig through your locker or tell The Advocate about how big you are. They are not deviant, sinful, evil or, for that matter, wrong. They are human beings who – oftentimes – play sports with remarkable skill.

They are professional athletes.

Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds & the Making of an Antihero."