In this Feb. 9, 2009, photo, Phoenix Suns president and CEO Rick Welts kneels… (Michael Chow/AP )
Charles Barkley is sick and tired of hearing how the sanctuary of the locker room is not ready for a male athlete in a major team sport to come out to his teammates, how awkward everyone would feel after they heard a teammate say, “I’m gay.”
After all, Barkley has no doubt he played with several gay teammates.
“I didn’t think it . . . they were gay,” he said when asked Monday about Phoenix Suns President Rick Welts coming out in a New York Times story over the weekend.
The Hall of Fame player and TNT analyst added he was certain he had gay teammates “on two of three teams I played on.”
Big deal, Barkley basically said, in a wide-ranging interview we taped Monday for my radio show on WJFK (106.7 FM): Those two teams with gay players? They still won and flourished. They had camaraderie and chemistry. And no, neither he nor his straight teammates were ever hit on or flirted with to his recollection.
Fears of feeling uncomfortable in the shower or the dressing areas, Barkley said, are unfounded in his experience.
“A guy is never going to put himself in that situation in a professional locker room,” Barkley said. “It never crossed my mind, and I never felt any different about the guy.”
Also weary of the perception that a majority of straight male athletes are intensely homophobic, Barkley said gay players pose no problem, adding, “Man, we need to outlaw guys who suck at sports.”
“I really like ESPN,” Barkley added. “They do a great job. But like once every two or three months, they bring all these people on there, and they tell me how me and my team are going to respond to a gay guy.
“First of all, every player has played with gay guys. It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say: ‘Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.’ First of all, quit telling me what I think. I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play.”
Wild, no? We are just four years removed from Tim Hardaway, in response to former player John Amaechi coming out, saying he “hates gay people,” and LeBron James ignorantly adding that he could not trust a teammate who was in the closet because he believed untruthfulness in his personal life would actually hurt him on the court.
Four years later, in an enlightening way, sports has undergone a very gay spring.
First the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant was hit with a $100,000 fine for uttering a gay slur at a referee, an incident Bryant later called a “teaching moment” as he and the club partnered with a gay-rights group to educate others.
Then, there was the New York Rangers’ Sean Avery’s endorsement ad for the Human Rights Campaign’s “New Yorkers for Marriage Equality Campaign,” an instigator in the most testosterone-laden of sports, no less.
Over the weekend, Grant Hill and Jared Dudley, coincidentally two Phoenix Suns players, participated in an NBA public service announcement that denounced the use of the term “gay” as acceptable trash talk on the playground.
It was also revealed that former Villanova player Will Sheridan came out to teammates during his career with the Wildcats, with no ramifications whatsoever.
And now Barkley, who played as masculine as any 6-foot-4 power forward in the history of playground or pro hoops, uttering the words, “It didn’t bother me,” saying he knew he had gay teammates.
“Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin’ idiot,” Barkley said. “I would even say the same thing in college. Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person.
Barkley’s message: Don’t worry. Deal with it.
“They’re not going to do anything in the locker room,” he said. “Doesn’t work like that.”
Barkley added that he wished Welts, whom he knows well because he lives in Phoenix, the best in the fallout from his public revelation. He also explained his stance and feelings about the issue.
“First of all, society discriminates against gay people,” Barkley said. “They always try to make it like jocks discriminate against gay people. I’ve been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can’t be in for any form of discrimination at all.”
Yes, he says, there are whispers and rumors in the NBA.
“We gossiped behind each other’s back before; I’ll be the first to admit that,” he said, before adding, “The first people who whine and complain is them Bible-thumpers, who are supposed to be non-judgmental, who rail against them.
“Hey, man, I don’t worry about what other people do.”
In this ever open-minded May, amen to that.