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Golub: Exploring LGBTQ acceptance in the NBA

Reggie Bullock made some small ripples recently when he asked for the NBA and its apparel provider, Nike, to make rainbow jerseys for teams in support of LGBTQ people. Before I go any further, big ups to Bullock for speaking out on LGBTQ equality. Bullock, whose transgender sister was killed, is coming off a career-best season but still is only a role player. He doesn’t enjoy anything remotely resembling the job security a player like LeBron has that allows him to be as outspoken as he wants on whatever he wants. Efforts like his are noble and change-making. Overall, the NBA has a reputation of being relatively open-minded when it comes to sexuality and gender differences. Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete in major pro American sports when the Brooklyn Nets signed up midseason a few years ago. Since then, though, the NBA hasn’t done much.

After the Rockets’ series-clinching win against the Timberwolves, superstars James Harden, Chris Paul and stud role player Clint Capela did a joint interview. Capela, in describing the team’s sustained performance in the deciding Game 5, used the phrase “from the tip to the end” of the game. Immediately after, Harden, seated to his right, joked “pause.” CP laughed; Capela missed the joke and kept talking.

By itself, Harden’s joke is pretty much harmless.  Generally the “pause” joke comes after someone says something that wasn’t intended to reference sex but could be construed that way (especially for gay sex). It’s the type of high school locker room joke that is funny only to pubescent straight boys. It demeans gay sex and, more broadly, is an example of sexualizing gayness. As the categorizing title implies, sexual orientation involves who one wants to have sex with. But that’s not all it is. Being gay, for example, is about romantic interest as well, not just sex. Alas, I digress. That’s a topic too complex for me to dig into on a beautiful Thursday afternoon.

Anyways, for a superstar player and the likely MVP of the season to make that type of joke should embarrass the Association in general and Harden in particular. Clearly, the NBA has lots of work to do in the name of LGBTQ equality.  Harden was in the middle of a press conference where he could honor his team for advancing in the playoffs.  It was a regularly scheduled press conference, something Harden has done a thousand times in his career. And it’s not as if Harden wasn’t generally being professional. When asked if he and the team would celebrate advancing a round in the playoffs, Harden gave a measured, stoic answer, explaining how the team had higher aspirations, and this was a good step forward. Why couldn’t he bring that same professionalism to the rest of the press conference?

To those who would say the NBA shouldn’t address political issues on an institutional level (like a jersey design), I have two responses. First, is equality for LGBTQ people a political issue?  It shouldn’t be. The Bill of Rights offers freedom of expression; my best guess for the reason it doesn’t mention sexuality explicitly is because our founding fathers were too ignorant to be aware of it. Second, the NBA has made political statements via jerseys before. Back in 2010 when the Arizona legislature had just implemented new legislation against immigrants, the NBA let the Phoenix Suns wear their Noche Latina jerseys (every year the NBA does a Latin Night AKA Noche Latino where teams were jerseys that have their team names in Spanish) in their series against the San Antonio Spurs in protest. Given this precious example, I see no reason for the NBA not to make LGBTQ pride jerseys. As an added bonus, teams get to sell an extra type of jersey. Which, for the cynical among us, is always the endgame.

The NBA has the potential to fill its empty approval of LGBTQ equality with inspired support. Following Bullock’s advice and making rainbow jerseys would be a great step forward, to use Harden’s description of his playoff series win.

Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu

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