What if LeBron James Were Gay?
Exploring the hypothetical impact of a superstar athlete coming out and identifying under the LGBTQ2IA umbrella.
Ok. I know what you’re thinking.
“Bro, LeBron’s not gay.”
“He’s got a wife and kids. What the fuck?”
“How could you even say something like that! He couldn’t be gay!”
My response to you is yes, I know LeBron James is not gay. But that’s not really the point. The point is that so many of the people who read that headline were sent into a flustered rage by the mere suggestion that someone like LeBron, an era-defining force on the field of play, could identify as something less than heterosexual and cisgender off of it.
Sure, it’s not LeBron, but it’s somebody. It’s multiple somebodies. I will never be able to prove it, but there is not a solitary doubt in my mind that we’ve missed out on a list of queer and trans world-beaters from all over the sporting landscape. We’ve already missed out on the first queer All-Star, All-Pro, All-NBA, and probably the first MVP.
The world only recently witnessed Amanda Nunez becoming the UFC’s first openly queer champion, and while there were likely queer fighters on top before her, it seems that a sport many view as barbaric has outstripped our major team activities in the realm of social progress.
But how could that be?
It largely comes down to toxic masculinity and locker room culture. It’s a gross chain of reactions where femininity is conflated with being lesser, queer identities are conflated with femininity, and everyone with an identity that falls outside the hegemony of cis, heterosexual maleness is assumed to lack the necessary aggression and mental fortitude to make it in the big leagues.
While toxic masculinity exists in all sports, the locker room environment of team sports seems to create an insulating bubble where these ideas fester amongst each other, and the cesspool grows deep enough that athletes can forget what the rest of the world has decided isn’t ok anymore.
The problem is very easy to identify, so how do we find a solution?
When Jason Collins came out in 2013, we were expecting the floodgates to open, and for the queer players in the Big Five to poor out of the closet into open daylight. We didn’t get that. As it turns out, it takes more than journeyman role player to undo a lifetime of negative socialization. Shocker.
What we did get is Michael Sam, the openly gay SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year, drafted at the end of the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft, allegedly because a 260-pound man suddenly became ‘too small’ to play defensive end.
As Sam bounced from camp to camp, thinly-veiled coded phrases like ‘character issues’ and ‘locker room distraction’ began to pop up, the catch-alls that coaches use when they don’t want to say what’s really on their mind. And if there’s any question about whether there’s still a culture of discomfort in front offices and coaching quarters, just look at Eli Apple and Derrius Guice, two NFL prospects who were allegedly asked during what equates to a job interview, about their sexuality.
We all appreciate the courage it took for Jason Collins and Michael Sam to do what they did. Their hearts called them to do whatever they could to impact the queer world for the better, and they did. However, this may be a classic case of Batman-itis. They were the heroes we deserved, but not the ones we needed.
Jason Collins was a veteran at the end of a contract who wasn’t even sure if he would get signed again anyways. Michael Sam was a college standout who many would say never got his fair shake because of the “distraction” his presence on a roster would cause. Neither of these brave souls were equipped to offer what queer athletes need, which is staying power.
That’s where LeBron comes in.
If LeBron were to come out as a member of the LBGTQ2IA community, he could offer that kind of cultural longevity. He is the icon who defines an era. The otherworldly talent that no amount of “baggage” or “distraction” could outweigh. Someone like James, Aaron Rodgers, or Bryce Harper could outlast the initial media circus and begin the process of normalization.
Normalization is honestly the end goal for queer athletes. For that to happen, we need the existence of queer people in elite athletic spaces to become something that doesn’t merit space on TSN’s bottom scroller, much less CNN’s.
While LeBron is not gay, he embodies what the community needs. A star talent whose ability to perform on the field of play transcends all other aspects of their person. Someone who, barring injury, is guaranteed to have a long, high-profile career that would allow (or force) the sport to get used to having openly queer athletes on the field and in the locker room.
LeBron would also have the credibility of having already constructed a Mount Rushmore calibre legacy based on not only his own skill, but the opportunities he was afforded as a presumedly heterosexual man. It pains me to say this, but in 2018, there is still a legitimate question as to whether or not an athlete who was openly queer from Day One would get the opportunities required to reach that level of stardom, even if they were an otherworldly talent. Even after getting drafted, Michael Sam had two sacks in a preseason game, and he didn’t even make the Rams practice squad. With Colin Kaepernick and Pro Bowl safety Eric Reid both jobless and filing collusion grievances against the NFL, it’s fairly obvious that pro sports leagues are not above suspending meritocracy in regards to players who have offended the sensibilities of the establishment.
Frankly, even if LeBron were to come out, we aren’t going to see a tidal wave of elite athletes pouring out of the closet the next day. Current players would still fear for their livelihoods and locker room relationships because, this just in, they aren’t LeBron. Sadly, there isn’t much we can do for them besides harshly condemn the toxic attitudes that imprison them, while dropping the proverbial hammer on anyone who attempts to justify them.
This isn’t for today’s queer athletes, but for tomorrow’s.
Queer athletes need someone to look up to as an example that they can reach the absolute apex of an industry that has forever seemed devoid of people like them. Someone who forces the people in charge to get over their fragile male egos, and who endures the scrutiny, the bigotry, and the discomfort so that the next generation can follow on the smoother path that they have paved.
And yes, for the love of God, I know that LeBron is not actually that person. But that person is out there somewhere, and they day will come where they step up to accept the task that is so unfairly required of them. I only wonder how many more incredible “firsts” we will miss before it happens.
Riley Evans is the Multimedia Editor for Grandstand Central, where he writes about athlete mental health, identity politics and how they interact with the world of sports. You can hear him on the Grandstand Central Podcast Network, or tweet at him here.
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