OUT OF THE CLOSET BUT NOT LOCKER ROOM

This may come as news to Tim Hardaway, but just because a man is gay doesn’t mean he wants to jump you.

On a Miami radio station last week, Hardaway said: “I hate gay people. … I don’t like to be around gay people. I’m homophobic.”

Nah. Really? Normally we would file this under “why athletes should not give long interviews.” But Hardaway’s comments came during a water-cooler discussion period about gays in sports, thanks to a new book by former NBA player John Amaechi, who, with its publication, came out of the closet.

Since then, reporters have asked players, “How would you feel if one of your teammates were gay?” And amidst many politically correct answers (“We’ve gotten past that.” “None of my business.”), here came Tim, with some fine, old-fashioned hate speech. And it was hate speech. He even used the word. He said of homosexuality: “It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.”

I’m not sure Tim realizes the world is bigger than the United States. And the United States is bigger than a basketball league.

But perspective has never been a strong point for pro athletes. Most of them, since high school, have been cocooned in a world of compliments, opposite-sex adoration and excused behavior – as long as they play well.

The NBA locker room is a home office for that world. Big-screen TVs, booming sound systems, private treatment areas, off-limits eating and showering, reporters begging for an audience. Of course, every man has his throne, with a name above it.

When asked where a gay teammate fits into that picture, Hardaway said: “I don’t think he should be in the locker room while we are in the locker room.”

Why? Because in Tim’s mind, the guy couldn’t take his eyes off him?

Is it homophobia or egomania?

A long history of intolerance

The idea that a gay man couldn’t share a locker room and not leer at his teammates, not start panting with lust, is beyond insulting; it’s ignorant. Remember, similar things were once said about female reporters in locker rooms. Yet today, women move unnoticed through the naked bodies after a game, and neither player nor reporter seems very excited. Nobody leers. People do their jobs.

Which is all this should ever be. A player is there to play. To reduce a gay teammate to his sexual urges is to dehumanize him. I understand why Amaechi told ESPN last week, “I have no interest in being tolerated”- not for being gay or black.

Hardaway should at least relate to the latter. There was a time, not so long ago, when white people were disgusted by the idea of integrated locker rooms. Would Hardaway defend their position? Would he like his skin color “tolerated”?

Now, I hear people object: “Black is a race! Gay is a sexual choice!”

They miss the point. It’s not about race or sex; it’s about hate. The reason locker rooms were once segregated was hate, and the reason gays hide their sexuality today is hate.

And hate is the first thing for which we should show intolerance.

Are these enlightened times?

It amazes me that some people cheer Hardaway for “being honest.” What’s so great about honesty when it reveals something awful? I know political correctness is over the top. And it can feel like racial, religious and sexual acceptance is shoved down our throats.

But such things – even overdone – are at least pointed in a good direction. Celebrating “honest” hatred is not a good direction.

As for those who oppose homosexuality on religious lines, they are entitled. But there’s a laundry list of religious objections in a locker room. How are greed, adultery, lust and the Lord’s name in vain? Why focus on gays?

There was a Broadway play called “Take Me Out” about a superstar baseball player who admits he’s gay. An angry teammate objects to the idea that he should be enlightened. “Enlightened,” he says, “is like this … idea where all standards go to hell. … I am not enlightened. … I pride myself on that.”

To which the gay player says, “Well, in that case, let me enlighten you about one thing – my sexuality is not your problem.”

How’s that sound, Tim?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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