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When will the walls come tumbling down?

Will there ever be a time when black athletes on the down low can be on the up high?

John Amaechi helped topple walls in the NBA and has become a beacon of hope for LGBT athletes.
John Amaechi helped topple walls in the NBA and has become a beacon of hope for LGBT athletes.
Mark Runnacles

This story was originally written by Randy Boyd on March 15, 2002

In November 1991, Earvin "Magic" Johnson came out on the then-popular Arsenio Hall Show. Came out as a straight person, that is. Days before, Magic had admitted his HIV status to the world and retired from basketball (for the first time). With the world still reeling from the shocking announcement, the Lakers star with the billion-dollar smile sat on his buddy's studio couch and promptly reiterated something he had already reiterated in Sports Illustrated: "I'm far from homosexual. Far from it."

Arsenio's audience went ballistic, cheering, pumping their fists in the air, howling "woof, woof, woof!". You'd think Magic had just wiped out famine or discovered a cure for breast cancer. Nah, he had just reassured the straight world that, although one of its biggest sports superstars was infected with the deadly virus, he was still a Man.

During that same week, longtime Lakers announcer Chick Hearn looked a TV camera dead in the eye and warned, "Don't think he got it the wrong way." Translation: Magic was a slut, a ho and a freak, but he was a Man. There is a right way to get HIV and a wrong way. Even a bozo who can't make it past the first round of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire can tell the difference.

Flash ahead circa 10 years to the present day. Kordell Stewart, black quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, does a 180 reminiscent of a pretty young gymnast on the balance beam, and says that, after years of silence on the subject, he will now talk about his sexuality. His heterosexuality, that is. You see, during some of his less productive seasons in the late '90s, Stewart was the subject of gay rumors that kept creeping up all over the sports world: in the stands, in chat rooms, on sports talk radio, in sports magazines. He also kept the Google search engine on the net pretty busy for anyone typing in the words "Kordell Stewart gay."

Kordell's initial response to the rumors had been, "it's nobody's business," insisting that his life off the field was a private matter not up for public scrutiny. Now apparently, he has decided that his sexuality is our business. In the Jan. 14 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated, writer Michael Silver described what really went on in the much-publicized, 1999, closed-locker-room meeting where Kordell addressed the homo rumors with his teammates. (Anyone wanna bet that, to a man, they were all showered and fully dressed?) Silver says that in that manly powwow (imagine the Promise Keepers meets the John Wayne Fan Club), Stewart issued a denial of all things lavender, then proceeded to share graphic descriptions of the heterosexual acts that gave him wood. "I could see the humor in the situation," Stewart said, "so I decided to have some fun with it. At one point I said, ‘You'd better not leave your girlfriends around me, because I'm out to prove a point.' A couple of guys said, ‘F*** you, Kordell,' and we all cracked up."

This season, in the midst of a resurgence by Kordell and the Steelers, star running back Jerome Bettis told the Associated Press: "I see a different quarterback, in the sense of his relationship with the players. He's a lot closer than he has been. For a while, he was defensive, he kind of kept his guard up. He's been more of a locker room guy this year. I think that's good, because it makes him a better football player in the long run."

Magic Johnson denies being a lover of men and goes on to be the shining example of someone allegedly cured of his wicked ways and AIDS.

Kordell Stewart denies diving into the kinds of end zones they don't paint with team logos and goes on to return the Steelers to championship contention in their shiny new Heinz Field, the house that ketchup built.

Little Has Changed

We got (mostly) white gay characters traipsing around on prime time television. We got (mostly) white lesbians holding hands on the red carpet at Hollywood awards shows. One can even argue that we've seen more visibility in the media for gays of all colors in the last two decades (OK, compared to zero visibility, that's probably true). But in the highly homophobic, testosterone-overloaded world of manly man's sports, has anything changed since Magic promised to educate the world about AIDS? Has anything changed since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball?

Internally, perhaps. But externally, the answer is similar to what black men mostly hear when applying for managerial positions in baseball. Hell, no.

First internally: listen long and hard enough around the gym, the sports bar, the private players' parking lots at the arena, and you're bound to get wind (or rumors) of signs of acceptance, or at least tolerance, for those same-gender loving brothers who aren't too "obvious" and don't flaunt it (how many times do I have to tell you: no rainbow flags!). OK, so there might be an NBA player or two who takes a male "friend" to a team function and only a clueless Ricky Martin fan wouldn't get the gist. OK, so there might be some annual barbeques where athletes on the down low don't have to be so down or so low, where they can groove with each other comfortably while D'Angelo is playing on the CD. OK, so maybe the inner circle of jockdom is somewhat blasé about gay jocks and is real good at keeping secrets and things are relatively "cool" on the inside for a big-name, established player who is SGL but keeps it real (translation: keep yo' shit in da closet!).

Because of the higher awareness and tolerance of gays in the culture at large, it's entirely possible that some black gay men in the pro ranks have it relatively easier today than, say, Glenn Burke, the black baseball player in the late '70s/early '80s who was thought by some to have possessed enough talent to be the next Willie Mays. Burke didn't hide it or flaunt it, but people who spend that much time together are bound to find out more than you want them to (can I get an "amen" from anyone who works in a cubicle?). And when baseball found out about Burke, his budding career hyperspaced into the bottom of the ninth with two outs, two strikes and no men on base. The Dodgers tried to get him married off to a woman. When that failed, they traded him. He eventually retired a bitter, far-from-rich man and died of AIDS in the late '80s, though he found a measure of community and peace living in the San Francisco Bay Area and playing in the local gay softball leagues.

Faggot: A Fighting Word

Depending on who you believe, the Glenn Burkes in today's big leagues have it easier, and when it comes to acceptance of SGL men, the sports world has inched ahead at a snail's pace while the rest of the world is moving snappily along at, well, a slightly faster snail's pace. But like the habitually hapless LA Clippers or the pennant-starved Chicago Cubs, the sports world has a long, long way to go before reaching the mount on high. On an ESPN report about gay athletes, several black baseball players expressed discomfort at the idea of sharing the locker room with a gay teammate (we gotta stop raping and convertin' 'em on the spot, guys!). The Sixers' Allen Iverson is a homophobe and damn proud of it (calls taunting fans ``faggot,'' and let's not forget the ill-fated, epithet-laced rap album). Heavyweight boxers Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman broke out in a fight at a sports restaurant when Lewis's sexual orientation was called into question. Seems like whenever a Man-excuse me, an athlete-is backed into a corner, he comes out with those ultimate fighting words: faggot.

Lest we paint all black athletes with the same broad brushstroke, there are promising stories of the anti-anti-gay athlete. Former Denver Bronco Reggie Rivers, in his column for the Denver Post, condemned homophobia, likening it to the kind of ignorant racism that has divided and defined much of America and its history. Even a single modern day god/warrior/gladiator shouting down prejudice and discrimination against gays goes a long way in combating the Allen Iversons of the world.

But is there any true, bright, shining light at the end of the tunnel for athletes on the down low? Or will they always be searching for a wife who's willing to make up in shopping sprees what she won't be getting in the bedroom? And what hope lies ahead for impressionable athletes who are young, gifted, black and gay? Will they shy away from sport, fearful of not fitting in? Will they represses what comes naturally to them off the field to excel at what comes naturally to them on the field? What will it take for the sports world and indeed, the whole world, to accept athletes who, when "The Hey Song" fades and the stadium lights are turned off, retreat into the loving arms of another man?

It's another answer worthy of the early rounds of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

It will take the same thing it took for any black man to be accepted on the fields of Yankee Stadium, Lambeau Field, the Georgia Dome, et al. It will take the gay equivalent of Jackie Robinson. And another gay equivalent of Jackie Robinson after that. And another gay equivalent of Jackie Robinson after that. And maybe another several dozen men after that-all of them being honest, courageous, who they are. Playing the game they love and enduring the crap sure to come their way. For when you break down walls, you're bound to be hit by the falling debris. But look at what Jackie and his fellow pioneers did for the black athlete. And just imagine what the Jackie Robinson of the 21st century can do for same gender loving people the world over. The answer, Regis: bring us closer to that moment of glory. The day when same all gender loving athletes are living on the up high!, instead of the down low.