An NBA team reached out to me last season wondering if I'd participate in a panel discussion addressing homophobia in sports. The audience would be the team's staff. I thought: "Wow. Are we still doing this?"
I've been on panels of this nature for nearly 20 years. I've spoken to NBA players, MLB staff, NFL owners and NHL fans. I consider it one of the perks of having the audacity to say LeBron is the king and Beyonce is my queen without changing audiences.
"I will do it if a player participates," I wrote in response. "I've done plenty of these panel discussions hosted by sports franchises without player buy-in."
A player wasn't available.
And so, neither was I.
I didn't set out to write about homophobia in sports. My dream job was being a beat reporter covering the Detroit Pistons. In college I covered the men's basketball team for the student newspaper. My first big "get" for the Western Herald was Grant Hill his rookie year. I wanted to be like Mitch Albom. Maybe replace the great George Blaha whenever the team's play-by-play legend decided to retire.
Then one day a sports editor called me a homophobic slur during a job interview. I wasn't shocked by the word, just by who said it. Hearing it while playing pick-up was a lot different than hearing it from someone who represented the culture of the place you wanted to work.
I didn't get the job.
Still, I wasn't compelled to speak out until Allen Iverson threatened to kill gay people, in his song "40 Bars" back in 2000.
Not gonna lie, that one hurt.
At the time, A.I. was my second-favorite player. Kobe Bryant was No. 1.
Yeah, that one hurt, too — when Kobe directed an anti-gay slur at a ref in 2011.
Actually, it was worse because 10 years had passed since "40 Bars." I thought things were different. Yeah, the $100,000 fine was a sign of progress, but the infraction made me question how much.
Fast-forward another decade, and we have Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards.
Wow. Are we still doing this?
The NBA will probably fine him for posting an Instagram video of himself participating in what can only be described as a drive-by gay bashing. I'm not making this up. Edwards is in a car. It's night. The driver's window is partially rolled down to get a clearer shot of a handful of guys, standing on the sidewalk, minding their own business.
"Look at these queer-ass n—, man," Edwards said. "Look what the world done came to."
He didn't know their sexual orientation. He didn't know whether any of them were in the closet, or if they could be fired if their bosses thought they were gay. All he knew was that he was comfortable enough to post a video of himself gay-bashing to his 1.2 million Instagram followers. Just as Kobe said the slur during a televised game. Just as A.I. deliberated and chose to threaten to kill gay people in his very first song.
Of course Edwards has since apologized. Of course the Timberwolves issued a statement condemning his actions. The NBA will issue a fine.
Right now, Tampa Bay Buccaneer Carl Nassib is the only out gay player in any of the country's major sports leagues. When Iverson dropped "40 Bars" 20 years ago, there were none. Even the NFL's record on hiring Black head coaches is better than that.
Panel discussions and fines have changed a lot during my career when it comes to homophobia in sports. Newsrooms are less hostile to out LGBTQ sports journalists. There are team staffers who are out, and organized fan groups such as Pride Republic for Los Angeles Football Club. There's a lot of progress to point to.
But Nassib is not the only gay man in America playing professional sports.
Earlier this season a baseball team reached out to see whether I was interested in covering its Pride Night. When I asked if any of the 26 players on the roster were available to talk about it, I was told no.
And so, neither was I.
The sports-industry complex needs to evolve past the performative in order to get closer to being the meritocracy it falsely claims it's always been. But there would be no need for a Jackie Robinson Day or Title IX legislation if sports were always about merit.
I may blame Edwards for posting the video, but I can't fault him for thinking doing so was OK — because sports culture continues to send the message that such behavior is OK. It's wonderful that the big professional sports leagues slap rainbows on T-shirts in June. But over the course of the other 11 months, something happens that stops closeted athletes from wearing one. If you read the leaked emails from Jon Gruden, former head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, you are reminded of what that something is. In some of the emails he questions the drafting of players solely because they are gay — to an NFL team president who offers no rebuttal.
Last month this disgraced coach spoke at a function for the Little Rock Touchdown Club. Attendees gave him a standing ovation when he was introduced. When the content of emails was brought up, he said it was "shameful." Less than a minute later he was joking about being a high school football coach. In between was something about everyone making mistakes. And applause.
Lots of applause.
Gruden is not the root of the problem. He's just trying to rehab his image. It was the fervent applause. No sports pride event is going to compete with that message — certainly not one where not even a single player is willing to take part. Between "40 Bars" and Edwards, only one NBA player has come out while playing, Jason Collins. And that was the last year in his league career.
So there will be fines. There may even be suspensions. But to change culture, it has to come from within the locker room — from youth sports to the pros. The NBA can make Edwards take the video down. But real change comes only when players start seeing members of the LGBTQ community as potential fans, not as favorite targets.
LZ Granderson is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.