The F-word has long been used as an essential part of playground trash-talk—“A male athlete who doesn’t perform up to par gets called a faggot, the biggest insult of all,” says Griffin—but leagues had typically treated it with punishments equivalent to accidentally saying “fuck” on national TV, something that’s not part of the family-friendly marketing the league thrives on, but not uniquely offensive on its own. “As a black man, there is no difference between calling me the N-word or calling me the F-word,” says John Amaechi, the former NBA center who made headlines in 2007 by coming out three years after he had retired in his best-selling memoir Man in the Middle. “Both words make me want to kill you.” (Amaechi is roughly six-foot-nine and 300 pounds.)
Ordinarily, Noah’s and Bryant’s fines would have inspired the sports world to debate whether it was okay to use the word in the heat of battle. Not this time. This time, it started a higher-level debate that kicked off what some observers have joked was “the gayest sports month ever.”
As usual, at the center of the story was TNT analyst Charles Barkley, the iconoclast chatterbox. When asked about the fines, Barkley went off. “I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play,” he told the Washington Post. “Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin’ idiot. I would even say the same thing in college. Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person … I’ve been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can’t be in for any form of discrimination at all.” It was a cannon shot: It was one thing for Vogue intern Sean Avery to come out in favor of gay marriage. It was quite another for Charles Barkley, an NBA icon, to do so.
Barkley’s comments seemed to open a door. “You sensed a change in the atmosphere, and that often sort of presages something greater happening in the culture,” Buzinski says. “That is the kind of stuff we have not heard voiced before that publicly.” Next thing you knew, former Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin was on the cover of Out magazine, declaring his love for his gay older brother and saying, “If anyone comes out in those top four major sports … I guarantee you I’ll give him 100 percent support.” It became fashionable for sports franchises to do public-service announcements, like support for marriage equality (the Phoenix Suns, whose team president, Rick Welts, is gay) and “It Gets Better” (seven Major League Baseball franchises, most recently the Tampa Bay Rays). In a video released by the Baltimore Orioles, players declare, “You should never feel like you have to hide who you truly are.” The PSAs were greeted by the sports world with a surprising yawn.
In many ways, sports have changed simply because the world has changed, and the world is where the money is. “I think the business community is saying, ‘This is not good for business to be seen as supporting homophobia in any way, and it’s actually better for business if you come out against it,’ ”says Buzinski. (The NFL still has made no anti-bullying statements and never spoke out on gay issues even during the tenure of commissioner Paul Tagliabue, whose son is openly gay.)
But it’s more than just that. Sports are played—and jerseys are bought—by the young, and it’s a generation that considers gay marriage and other “hot-button” gay issues nonstarters. “Today’s athletes are coming of age in a world of same-sex marriage and vastly more tolerant attitudes toward gays throughout society,” says Neil Best, who has covered sports for Newsday and other publications for some three decades. “Like racism and sexism before them, the walls are starting to crumble.”
Obviously, there are still considerable pockets of anti-gay sentiment in sports. Earlier this year, Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell was placed on leave by his team for reportedly asking a group of male hecklers if they were “giving it to each other up the ass.” And when the gay-marriage bill passed the New York State Legislature, the Daily News quoted Mets players saying that the team was “split 50-50” on the issue of gay marriage, and “most of us are still Neanderthals.” But the general consensus is that this homophobia is primarily an abstract prejudice that would dissolve once an actual openly gay man were in a team’s midst. “I believe that there are a lot more athletes who would take the perspective of ‘If you can play, you’re fine with me,’ ” says Griffin.