By Connie Wardman
According to various studies, basketball is the second most popular with Americans of the big four men’s professional team sports, running slightly behind the National Football League (NFL). It goes without saying that there are gay basketball players at every level of the sport. Some are open about their sexual orientation while others stay closeted to varying degrees for a variety of reasons.
While less overtly macho than the NFL, some think that the National Basketball Association (NBA) hasn’t done much for its LGBT and women athletes and coaches and their combined fan bases. I’m not sure that’s as true as those people believe it to be. The NFL is in freefall this year, scrambling to get its actions on equality and diversity issues to match its mission statements. Change in the NFL is being fueled by increasing pressure from outside sources to get its collective act together.
Like the story of the hare and tortoise, the NBA has carried on a slow but steady march toward inclusion and diversity, turning the league into a global enterprise that does business in more than 200 countries. It has been planned and executed over the years thanks to the vision and quiet efficiency of David Stern’s leadership durng his 30-year tenure as commissioner of the NBA.
There have been several major events within the league over the years that haven’t necessarily been viewed by the public as parts of a larger picture of organizational change within the league. As the one-year anniversary of new commissioner Adam Silver’s take over from Stern is celebrated, the swift action he took against Don- ald Sterling, former owner of the Clippers shows his pro-active management style. Having joined the NBA in 1992 as Stern’s special assistant and then becoming deputy commissioner eight years ago, Silver is well steeped in the Stern method of operation but it may be a little early to know if he will follow directly in Stern’s footsteps or start to impose his particular view of how the NBA should be run.
John Amaechi Comes Out After Retiring
The first NBA player to come out as gay was John Amaechi. Growing up in England where he now lives and works, he was born in the U.S. and then returned to the states to play high school basketball. After a year at Vanderbilt he transferred to Penn State where he became an academic All-American and was graduated with a degree in psychology. He has since gone on to receive a doctorate in the same field.
And therein lies a clue to the real John Amaechi. Never one to be easily pigeonholed, perhaps the most accurate and succinct thing you can say about him is that he’s an intellectual, a natural educator and professional speaker and motivator who lives in his head but still expects real world results.
Amaechi never played basketball until he was 17 and within weeks of touching a ball he set his sights on playing in the NBA. A mere six years later the 6-foot 10, 280-pound power forward became a starter in the NBA and had a five year career in the league. He even reportedly turned down a $17-million contract offer from the LA Lakers in 2000 to stay with the Orlando Magic for $600,000 a year.
He has shared his story on an NBA.com “Breaking Barriers” video. Calling himself “a bit of a rare case,” Amaechi says he doesn’t love basketball. What sticks with him is the pleasure of making a plan that everyone said was impossible and then achieving it. He says “I was never a basketball player; I was a psychologist who played basketball.” The first time a rival player looked at him, Amaechi says he was able to see his own potential in his rival’s eyes. This, he says is how we can use sports to help others recognize and develop their own potential in a similar manner.
After retiring from the game in 2007, Amaechi announced he was gay. What still perplexes him is that in spite of all the work he did to reach the NBA in just six years, what people really remember about him is that he’s gay, something that required no work on his part. But his legacy of courage extended to Jason Collins who sought Amaechi’s advice before his coming out in 2013 while still an active player. Recalling his personal experience shortly after his coming out, Amaechi said “Ask yourself what has changed, or even any efforts that were made by the NBA brass to bring their league into the 21st century. I have the greatest respect for [then-NBA commissioner] David Stern,” he continued. “However, when I came out all the words that were said were the correct words … but the opportunity to educate people was missed.”
Jason Collins Comes Out While An Active Player
On Collins’ coming out, Amaechi says he was filled with great pride on the reception Collins received and the fact that his jersey was the best selling one in the NBA. And when making a comparison between the two events, Amaechi says that outside of officials from the league, his experience felt a bit colder than Collins’,” admitting that there was just a tinge of sadness that his announcement was too early.
Was his announcement in 2007 too early? That is Amaechi’s personal truth it is how he feels and he deserves the right to share it. But looking at the larger picture I’m reminded how generational our beliefs tend to be, how societal norms change gradually with the arrival and departure of different age groups. Timing is everything. Sometimes a new generation is required before an important change has enough fertile ground to allow seeds planted by others in the past to grow and thrive.
Tim Hardaway’s homophobic response to Amaechi’s coming out in 2007 got him pulled from the NBA’s All-Star Weekend that was taking place at the time. Even though it’s only been eight years since Hardaway’s comments, by 2007 changes had already slowly and rather quietly been taking place in the NBA thanks to Stern’s forward vision for the league and the capable staff he’d been gathering around him.
Women Referees Added
In 1995 the NBA wanted to add women to its developmental program but realized not everyone would agree with this decision so they started rather quietly without much fanfare. And by 1997 the NBA had two full-time female referees—Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner. Palmer, the first to officiate an NBA game was a Division II college point guard for Cal-Poly Pomona in 1985-86. And by the time she got the call from the NBA office, Palmer had already officiated at five NCAA women’s Final Fours as a top-ranked women’s college official. Palmer shares that working in the NBA was such a radical idea that when she got the first call from them she thought it was a friend playing a joke on her.
Kantner left after five seasons, eventually becoming supervisor of officials for the WNBA. With 62 full-time referee positions in the NBA, there are still only two women—Palmer and rookie Lauren Holtkamp. After 18 seasons, players and coaches may argue a call by Palmer but no one doubts her integrity and knowledge of the game. She says “I think I’ve become such a permanent fixture that the whole women’s deal doesn’t matter anymore.” A lesbian of color who came out to her colleagues in 2007 (the same year Amaechi came out), this past July Palmer married her partner of 20 years, celebrity stylist Tanya Stine with no apparent backlash.
As only the third full-time female referee in the four U.S. major men’s team sports, Holtkamp will be building her own reputation on the court with incidents like the recent technical foul call she made on Clippers Chris Paul. Calling it a terrible play, he said “This might not be for her.” Whether or not Paul’s remarks were intended to be sexist can be endlessly debated but the NBA fined him $25,000 for criticizing Holtkamp, the standard fine for criticizing a referee. However, the NBA Referees Association reviewed her calls and tweeted the following: “After review, the calls made by Ms. Holtkamp are fully justified. We deplore the unprofessional comments made by Chris Paul. #shebelongs”
Another huge shift in sports diversity came from the league in 2011 when Rick Welts, then president and COO of the Phoenix Suns decided he finally needed to come out. His story was so important that it ran on the front page of the New York Times. He became the first highest ranking and perhaps best-known executive in U.S. men’s professional team sports to come out publically at a time when a lack of job protection legislation in Arizona and 27 other states in the U.S. meant that he and other members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community could be fired for their sexual orientation.
Long recognized and honored for his remarkable marketing ability, Welts was the creative genius behind the concept of the NBA All-Star Weekend with its Slam Dunk contest and a game for the retired Legends of the NBRPA, the association of retired players from the NBA, ABA and the Harlem Globetrotters. He also created the marketing campaigns for the original Dream Team that played in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the launch of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the league’s international expansion, eventually winding up third in command at the NBA.
Now the president and chief of operations for the Golden State Warriors, the most remarkable part of Welts’ public coming out was the fact that he was courageous enough to share his reason for leaving Phoenix—it was to be with his partner. In one of the first public signs that societal attitudes toward homophobia in sports were changing, just a few weeks after his announcement he was hired by the Warriors. Welts’ willingness to be true to himself helped move equality in professional sports forward in a way not seen before.
Nike Steps Up
Prior to making his public coming out announcement, Welts had first shared the information with then-commissioner Stern, some of the players and also with several senior executives at Nike. In an interview with Scott Soshnick of Bloomberg.com, Welts revealed that Nike had asked him to deliver a message to any gay professional sports figure in a major U.S. team sport thinking about coming out that the company would want to endorse him or her.
In a sign of just how far the sports profession has come to achieving equality, Welts said that “They made it clear to me Nike would embrace it. The player who does it, they’re going to be amazed at the additional opportunities that are put on the table, not the ones that are taken off.” He also shared with me that to his surprise, all the reaction to his coming out was positive.
Clearly, Nike (whose advertising includes “#BETRUE” in gay-associated rainbow colors) and many other major companies are starting to invest big marketing dollars in sports equality. While Jason Collins wasn’t a high profile NBA player until his announcement, nevertheless his strength and courage by and large have been publically acknowledged in a positive light in the media and well accepted by players and fans. And his impact on those in the LGBT community has been powerful.
Collins has been interviewed by Oprah, he and his straight twin Jarron (now on the Warriors coaching staff ) have been working with LGBT youth through clinics such as the You Belong Initiative and he and tennis star Martina Navratilova have spoken at the United Nations (UN) about the fight to eliminate homophobia in sport. During that UN press conference Collins said homophobia was not tolerated in the NBA, that commissioner Stern had made certain language and action punishable by a minimum fine of $50,000.
Collins Rehired As Openly Gay Athlete
Robbie Rogers and many other gay athletes who have come out since Collins’ coming out have said they were positively influenced by him. After coming out as gay, like Welts, Collins was hired again, picked up by the Brooklyn Nets for the remainder of their 2013-14 season. When Collins decided to retire from his 13-year NBA career at the end of the season, he did so as an active player who also happened to be a gay man.
Becky Hammon Hired By Spurs as Full-Time Coach
The second important step forward is the announcement made by San Antionio Spur this pas August that they hired Becky Hammon as a full-time assistant coach. Gregg Popovich, head coach of the Spurs said Hammon’s hiring was based on her filling the criteria he always looks for in assistant coaches. “Having observed her working with our team this past season, I’m confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs,” he said.
Hammon’s retirement from the San Antonio Stars at the end of the 2013-14 season capped a successful 16-year playing career in the WNBA. The seven-time WNBA All-Star said “To be perfectly honest, it’s never been about the woman thing. It’s been about, ‘Hey, she’s got a great basketball mind, and we’d love to have her and think she’d be a great addition to our program.’”
Hammond and Popovich’s comments really reflect the ultimate goal of sports diversity – if you’re an athlete who loves sports, is willing to work hard, communicate well and be a team player, you should be allowed to play the sport(s) you love!
Faces Problems of Money and Sexism
The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) owes its existence to the vision of former NBA commissioner David Stern, both to his ability to sell the concept to the NBA owners and to his trust in the marketing genius of Rick Welts, then working at the NBA headquarters in New York. Stern definitely had a social agenda that drove all his decisions but he was always a pragmatist who understood the value of timing.
Thinking the WNBA would capture the same level of fan excitement and support as the NBA had, Stern chose to launch the WNBA’s first season on June 21, 1997 following on the heels of a highly-publicized Olympic gold medal run by the 1996 USA Basketball Women’s National Team at the Summer Games in Atlanta.
But the WNBA has suffered since its inception from the age-old assumption by society in general that women’s sports are never as good, as exciting or as important as men’s sports. And while Stern’s slow but steady movement toward sports equality worked well for the NBA over the years, it never appeared to have the same push toward future evolvement for the WNBA. Not to worry, though—it’s taking the spotlight this year.
Hall of Famer Lynette Woodard, a game-changing player from her high school playing days throughout her professional career, recalled that the Olympic win led to the realization by many that women really could play the game. It impressed the Harlem Globetrotters enough that they held auditions for women players. Although some were skeptical in the beginning, she says that watching the women at tryouts was an eye-opener for many of them.
And the Globetrotters certainly recognized her talent. Woodard made the history books in 1985 as the first woman to play on the famous team. After two years with the Globetrotters, she went to play in women’s professional basketball leagues overseas.
Even though she was in her late 30s and working as a stockbroker in New York City when the WNBA was launched, in 1997 she was signed by the Cleveland Rockers. And in the 1998 WNBA expansion draft she was picked by the Detroit Shock. In a wonderful turn of events for her, her boss in the financial industry approved her playing since it coincided with the financial slow season. The truth is that Woodard couldn’t give up her day job to do what she loved best—to play basketball.
And lack of equitable salaries is the ugly truth for all WNBA players. While it has given female athletes an equal opportunity to play the game they love in a U.S. league for women, the opportunity isn’t equal when it comes to the money. To earn the highest salary during their limited window of career play, many women play year-round, going to Europe, Russia or China during the WNBA off-season.
While the league is still considered young and growing, over its 18-year history it has never reached the popularity and income of the NBA, meaning that the women’s salaries fall extremely far below the men’s. A May 19, 2014 article in BuzzFeed by reporter Lindsey Adler revealed that the average salary of a WNBA player is estimated to be around $72,000 which makes the average total league-wide wages to be $10,368,000 (unlike the NBA, the WNBA prohibits disclosing any contract/earnings information). Adler made an interesting comparison of some top NBA players’ salaries to what that amount would pay for in the WNBA. Here are the top three comparisons:
Because they get no off-season rest like the NBA players, the wear and tear of year-round play results in injuries that can cause women players to sit out a season to heal. Unfortunately, if they have to miss a season it’s better for them financially to miss the WNBA season since the international leagues generally pay more that the WNBA. Knowing that they each have a limited window of time to play professionally, in the end, it’s really a business decision for each player.
But this may the year the WNBA will have to face its financial dilemma. Diana Taurasi, star guard for the Phoenix Mercury and arguably the best women’s basketball player in the world, announced that she is sitting out the WNBA 2015 season. The reason? The Russian team she plays for, UMMC Ekaterinburg, has offered to pay her more than her WNBA salary to sit out the season. She makes approximately $1.5 million for the Russian season in comparison to the WNBA league maximum of $107,000.
In a recent interview with Kate Fagan of “espnW,” Taurasi said “It was the perfect mix of timing and making sure I was in control of my career. Since 2004, when I started professional basketball, it has been a cycle—a cycle that I have enjoyed so much. With my team in Russia, a conversation began about making sure I’m at an elite level for a long time with them. I put everything on the table and weighed all my options and made the best decision.”
This kind of financial offer from overseas teams to protect their elite players by paying them to sit out the WNBA season isn’t new. There was concern in 2010 that Taurasi would sit out the 2011 season to rest while earning more money. In spite of the low pay and Spartan travel conditions, the fact that so many players have opted to stay in the WNBA can be seen as a real testament to their desire for the league to succeed.
But now at age 33 Taurasi says “I’m really lucky to even have these options. It speaks volumes on how UMMC values our relationship, and vice versa. For 10 years, I have never had any significant time off.”
Not all WNBA players will get this financial offer, however—it’s only made to elite players like Taurasi. And if those players choose to follow her example, it could mean a real downturn in the WNBA’s fortunes.
The solution, says Fagan is for the WNBA to change its salary structure, calling for the league to “Stop paying mediocre players the same amount as Diana Taurasi (or Sue Bird or Candace Parker or Seimone Augustus).” According to Fagan, “This past WNBA season, 36 players made approximately the same amount as Taurasi, who will likely finish her career as the league’s all-time leading scorer. Another six players made just under $100,000. This means each team had three to four players making ‘max money.’” She continues to say that most coaches in the league make double the salaries of their star players.
While money appears to be the big issue for the WNBA, the root cause lies in the still subtle and pernicious sexist view held by many that women athletes aren’t as good as their male counterparts. And it’s all wrapped up in the ridiculous belief by many that great male athletes can never be gay but great female athletes must always be lesbians. It’s homophobia in sports, folks—still alive and doing all too well.
Are there openly lesbian players in the WNBA? Yes, it’s not a big secret—take a look at Taurasi’s Mercury teammate Brittney Griner, for one. Over and over again the majority of straight athletes asked say they don’t care about their teammates’ sexuality—they care about their ability to help the team win games. And various surveys over the years have shown that the WNBA has a large following within the gay community.
But whether through ignorance, oversight or downright fear of antagonizing straight fans and advertisers, it shouldn’t have taken the WNBA 18 years to finally acknowledge its gay fan base this past spring and come up with a marketing campaign targeting them.
Taurasi has said she plans on returning to the Mercury for the 2016 season and WNBA league president Laurel Richie has voiced her support for Taurasi’s decision. But Michele Roberts, the feisty new executive director of the National Basketball Players Association recently added the title of interim executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association. Roberts has said that “Our players’ commitment to the WNBA has exceeded all expectations particularly in light of the grueling schedules they endure.”
Roberts continued to say that “… it is unfortunate that in the most recent round of bargaining the WNBA owners insisted on the imposition of significant penalties on players who may have to miss some portion of the WNBA season in order to fulfill overseas commitments. Our hope is that these penalties do not have the unfortunate, unintended consequence of discouraging some players from playing for the WNBA.”
Woodard once said “You never know which snowflake will start the avalanche.” I think Taurasi’s decision coupled with Roberts’ arrival as interim executive director for the player’s organization is the avalanche-starter for the WNBA. One thing is for sure—the league is in for big changes this year if it wants to stay relevant.