In 2007, after his career had ended, John Amaechi became the first former NBA player to come out publicly about his homosexuality.
Amaechi was, in many ways, a pioneer for Michael Sam, the Missouri defensive end who announced his homosexuality this past week – just three months before the NFL Draft.
Sam is seeking to become the first openly gay player ever drafted into the NFL.
“I think that anything that expands the conversation about inclusivity – in sports or otherwise – is a good thing,” Amaechi said on Ferrall on the Bench. “I don’t see this as an issue of diversity, really. I think it’s an issue of helping people understand that finding the best people – regardless of their demographics – (is the most important thing). It’s about finding the best people, and this brave young man happens to (have) inspired that conversation particularly well.”
Amaechi, a Penn State product, played for three teams in the NBA – the Magic, Jazz and Rockets – from 1999 to 2003. He admitted his sexual orientation in a memoir entitled Man in the Middle.
Amaechi has been disappointed by the response to Sam’s announcement. Before the announcement, Sam was projected as a top-100 pick. After his announcement, he fell outside the top 150.
Did his talent simply go away after one interview, or do some organizations simply not want the distraction?
“I think ‘We don’t need this distraction’ is a line I’ve heard three or four times from people,” Amaechi said. “I haven’t heard it from players, for the most part. I’ve heard it from anonymous GMs and anonymous scouts. The interesting part, for me, is that the NFL is pretty rich to start talking about distractions. . . . Many of these people seem to be felons – people who have beaten their wives, people who’ve been arrested for drunk driving, people who’ve been arrested for firearms offenses. And to me, that would seem a far greater distraction than a young man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps from a very difficult beginning to make himself into a student-athlete of the highest caliber.
“When people talk about the distraction, what they’re really using is a euphemism to hide their fear,” Amaechi continued. “It’s not (necessarily the case) that all these people are bigots in any way, but they are all fearful of something new, of a change that’s going to demand that they take a responsibility of the culture within sports. And at the moment, nobody’s taking responsibility for the culture of sport. They’re just taking for granted that sports has a hostile culture towards women, a hostile culture towards (the) LGBT community, a hostile culture towards many people who are different. And they don’t want to take responsibility for it.
“To me, I wanted to win,” Amaechi continued. “In my career, I just wanted to win. Any teammate who would help me win, I would take that. It’s amazing to me where there’s so much money involved in sport, that the NFL doesn’t want to embrace that perspective themselves.”
Scott Ferrall thinks that many NFL figures are saying all the right things publicly but think very different things privately.
“There are some people who will be amazingly political correct when the cameras are on – and then perhaps less so in other more private scenarios,” Amaechi said. “However, any organization that wants change, can change – if well led. And the truth is, the resistance in football to them changing their culture to make it more inclusive so they can just have the very best players regardless – that resistance is coming from a minority of people who hold the vast majority of power. You can talk about players as if they have power, but if there’s anybody more powerful than somebody making a whole packet of money per week playing football, it’s the person paying them that packet of money per week.”