Thursday, February 15, 2007

Hardaway Redux

Leave it to an ESPN analyst Gene Wojciechowski to speak words of wisdom about the news that retired NBA player John Amaechi is gay and retired NBA player Tim Hardaway is a bigot:

The news isn't that Amaechi is gay and wrote a book about it. The news isn't that Tim Hardaway is a self-confessed homophobic and told a radio sports talk-show host about it. The news is that it won't be news a week from now. And that's a good thing.

This is all playing out so predictably. Former NBA center declares he's gay. Past and present NBA players declare indifference. One former NBA player, in this case, Hardaway, declares his outrage and hatred. Hey, just like real life.

It's so easy to take a swing at the human pinata, Hardaway, right now. After all, the words spilled out of his mouth with such ease and with such arrogance.

"Well, you know, I hate gay people," he told Dan Le Batard, a Miami Herald columnist and local talk show host, on Le Batard's radio show. "I let it be known I don't like gay people. I don't like to be around gay people. I'm homophobic."

Never mind that Hardaway played at the same university and for the same coach who, years earlier, helped destroy racial stereotypes by starting five African-American players against all-white Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA Final Four championship game. But the lessons of tolerance taught by Don Haskins at Texas-El Paso somehow were forgotten by Hardaway. Or maybe they were never remembered in the first place.

Hardaway's comments will be reviled and praised. Gay rights advocates will issue angry, impassioned statements condemning the remarks. Gay bashers will rejoice. And then all the noise will dissolve and we'll watch the NBA All-Star Game this Sunday.

This isn't meant to dismiss what Hardaway said. It was a vile, reprehensible display of ignorance, but it isn't anything new. Hardaway simply gave his prejudice a name and a face for a news cycle or two. His bigotry, as well as his apology, will be forgotten, as it should be.

Hardaway is a single, blunt, clumsy voice. His opinion is shared by others, but the good news here -- the only news here -- is that there are enough other voices to counter the homophobic screed.

NBA commissioner David Stern immediately rendered Hardaway persona non baller by banning him from any league-related appearances. But the more appropriate action might have been to let Hardaway make those appearances and deal with the backlash in person. Or better yet, have him attempt to articulate the reasons for his hatred. I mean, if we're going to have a dialogue, then let's have a dialogue.

Instead, we got this from Hardaway: "I shouldn't have said I hate gay people or anything like that."

Can't you just feel the sincerity?

Meanwhile, Amaechi acknowledged the obvious, that homophobia comes in all shapes and sizes, including former All-NBA point guards. Hardaway was given a public forum to express his views. Others use old reliable: hate mail.

There always will be intractable people such as Hardaway -- and Amaechi no doubt has the letters to prove it. But it's easier to pay less attention to Hardaway's nonsense because, in the end, his hatred doesn't matter. And one of these days, neither will Amaechi's homosexuality.

I don't care that a gay center played in the NBA. Then again, I don't care if my car mechanic, dentist or mailman is gay. And I definitely don't care what a little lint-speck of a person, Tim Hardaway, thinks about them.

This is no longer about alternative lifestyles, or whatever the hell euphemism nervous people use to describe gays. It's about the relationship between the micro world of sports and the macro world of society.

I'm not naïve enough to believe homosexuality in sports isn't an issue, but it no longer is the issue. Those days are gone. That's why Amaechi is no pioneer and Hardaway is barely a footnote.

Progress is being made. Maybe not as fast as Amaechi would like, or as slow as Hardaway would prefer, but we're approaching a moment when being a gay athlete in a predominantly straight world simply doesn't matter.

Yesterday it was Martina Navratilova. Today it is Amaechi. Tomorrow it will be someone else. Guess what? They had me at hello.

I don't need any more heartfelt disclosures from the Amaechis of the world. Been there, read that. That's because we live in different, more enlightened times now. Perfect? No. Better? Yes.

It's not my fault Hardaway didn't get the memo.

Yes, progress is being made.

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