Inside the Sixers: For players, homophobia not a problem in NBA

In February, the 76ers' Jrue Holiday said American society is too large for there to not be gay athletes.
In February, the 76ers' Jrue Holiday said American society is too large for there to not be gay athletes. (RON CORTES /Staff)
Posted: May 02, 2013

Spend enough time around elite athletes and you come to realize something that you'd otherwise miss.

While many wrongly assume they are all mostly narcissistic, self-centered, intolerant and out of touch, I've always felt that they have, in some regards, a better perspective on some things than the fans who complain about the salaries they help to pay.

Athletes operate in a world where many of the picayune barriers we erect - racism, sexism and homophobia - have a harder time thriving outside of the incubator.

Think about it.

In order for athletes to reach the highest level and become champions, they spend their careers adapting to people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and making themselves secondary in order to achieve a common goal: success.

The artificial boundaries we erect "in the real world" that may serve as an impediment to another colleague - some of them institutional - often go unchallenged. But this type of cancer will disintegrate a professional sports team.

The 76ers locker room, despite the team's lack of success this season, stands as a perfect example.

Center Spencer Hawes, the lone white player on the Sixers, may as well have been a walking advertisement for 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, not exactly a favorite of his African American teammates (with maybe Lavoy Allen as the lone exception).

But unlike in the real world - where these differences might not have been navigable - the Sixers easily tucked those differences away during practices, games, plane rides and charity events.

The fact that Jason Collins came out as the first openly gay active athlete in the four American professional sports was historic, for sure. However, most of the response from athletes hasn't been of the testosterone-laced homophobic nature some predicted.

I broached this subject with some of the Sixers in the walkup to the Super Bowl shortly after San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made waves when he said he would not play with a gay teammate.

"It's going to happen eventually," point guard Jrue Holiday said then. "Our society is just too large for people to expect there to not be gay athletes."

Said Evan Turner: "People are who they are and that's about it. You can't change people. You just have to accept them for who they are. That's about it."

Where you fall on the gay issue is about personal preference. However, the societal vitriol unleashed upon ESPN's Chris Broussard, who cited measured personal religious beliefs for disagreeing with Collins but did not disparage who he is, was a pathetic example of how far the real world has to go. It was as if Broussard, pilloried in social media, suggested separate-but-equal schools and separate buses and water fountains for the straight and gay.

This was not in the same ballpark as Pastor Jeff Smith's Neanderthal suggestion from the pulpit of the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Coconut Creek, Fla., last December when, in a sermon, he equated homosexuals with serial killers, rapists and child molesters.

And what of the cadre of preachers who routinely suggest that God's punishment for homosexuality in America comes in the form of hurricanes such as Katrina and Sandy? Interesting rationale. Perhaps they also believe God blinked and missed more than two centuries of slavery.

As we wait breathlessly for the next player to come out, the NBA will handle this better than many think. Collins is 34 years old, a journeyman of marginal talents now. He's a free agent who may have played his last game. No one is fighting to obtain him.

However, if he's not on a roster at the start of the 2013-14 season, stories of no substance will surface proclaiming that Collins is being blackballed by an intolerant league. The public support from superstar players such as Kobe Bryant and championship coaches such as the Boston Celtics' Doc Rivers will be forgotten.

And that's because the really intolerant are watching, not playing.


Contact John N. Mitchell at  jmitchell@philly.com. Follow on Twitter @JmitchInquirer

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