On Monday, Jason Collins, a centre who played for the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards this past NBA season, announced that he is gay. Media outlets everywhere are proclaiming him to be the “first active player in one of the four major U.S. pro sports leagues” to be openly gay. While we can certainly quibble about the use of the term “active” — Collins is 34 years old, has never been very productive, and is a free agent this off-season, so there’s no guarantee he’ll ever play in the NBA again — Collins is definitely a rarity in NBA circles. With Collins’ announcement, the number of openly gay men to have played NBA basketball has doubled. The only other openly gay former NBA player is John Amaechi, another unproductive journeyman centre, who came out in 2007, four years after his last NBA game. Are there many closeted NBA players, or are there simply not very many gay players in the NBA?
I think the answer to this question is pretty obvious, but, given our focus on stats and numbers here at the Wages of Wins, why don’t we try to use some numbers?
The demographics of homosexuality is not exactly clear cut. There are a variety of estimates ranging from 3% to 8% or more, and everything in between. Surveys that ask people to guess what percentage of the population is gay put that number even higher, at around 20%. The whole issue is rather tricky, because the definition of “homosexual” is somewhat vague. If you are attracted to both men and women, but more attracted to men, does that make you gay? If you’ve only had heterosexual relationships, haven’t felt comfortable with them, but haven’t had any homosexual relationships, are you gay? What if you’ve had 20 heterosexual experiences and one homosexual experience. Does that mean you are gay? In truth, human sexuality is more of a spectrum than a binary, which is why it is so hard to pinpoint an exact figure.
But let’s put all that aside for a moment and use very basic estimates. If the demographics of NBA sexuality is like that of the general population, we’d expect between 3%-8% of NBA players to be gay. For the moment, let’s humour those who argue that the NBA is more heterosexual than the general population, and pick a very conservative low estimate of 1.5%. But we’ll stick with 8% for the high estimate. How many players do these estimates give us? Here are the numbers for the last 14 seasons:
|Year||NBA Players||Est. # of Gay Players (low)||Est. # of Gay Players (high)|
In any given year, it is very likely that there are between 7 and 36 gay players playing in the NBA. According to Basketball-Reference, a combined 4137 players have played in the NBA, BAA, and ABA since 1947. Using our estimates, that means that there have probably been between 62 and 331 gay players in the history of the NBA. And using sophisticated statistical tools, I can tell you that 2 is a much smaller number than 62 or 331. So it is almost 100% certain that the NBA has several more closeted gay players. Why aren’t these players open about their sexuality?
Homophobia is still common
It’s 2013. Twelve countries have legalized same-sex marriage. The president of the United States has openly supported the rights of same-sex couples to marry. The majority of the general public supports of gay marriage. But it wasn’t too long ago that homosexual acts were illegal in the United States: only ten years ago, the US Supreme Court invalidated anti-sodomy laws in 14 US states. And in fact, homosexual acts are still illegal in 70 countries. While laws are changing, homophobia is common, especially in traditionally masculine domains such as sport. Locker rooms are filled with misogynistic and homophobic comments, creating an environment very hostile to anything that isn’t heteronormative.
Don’t believe that? In 2007, in response to Amaechi’s coming out, former NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway said the following:
“You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.”
Comments like those explain why the only two NBA players who have come out have been on the fringe of the NBA. Amaechi was retired when he came out, so he didn’t have to worry about locker room comments or being ignored by teammates on the court. Collins is a 34 year old free agent, and given his body of work, there’s a very good chance that he won’t be playing in the NBA next year. The real question is how long it will take for the NBA to have an openly gay player who has an impact on the court.
That is the real test for the NBA and the other professional sports. Because there are certainly more more gay athletes who are in the closet and waiting to come out. We can only hope that the reaction Collins has received will encourage these more prominent athletes to go public. Because the thing that is really going to start changing people’s minds is when sport heroes start coming out.