Since Jason Collins became the first openly gay active male athlete in a major US sports league in 2013, the public attitudes toward LGBTQ+ athletes have shifted significantly. We’ve lived through Obergefell v Hodges, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and a steady drumbeat of ‘firsts’ including Michael Sam, Collin Martin, Carl Nassib and Luke Prokop. But one thing hasn’t changed: how the NBA, its players and fans react when socially constructed ideas of masculinity, sexuality and sports are questioned.
When Collins came out, he was met mostly with applause, including support from Kobe Bryant and the Obamas. The circumstances around another NBA star, Dwight Howard, are very different. While Collins was never more than a role player during his NBA career, Howard is a future Hall of Famer once put forth as a face of the league: a three-time defensive player of the year, an eight-time All-Star and an NBA champion with the LA Lakers in 2020. (The 37-year-old most recently played in the Taiwanese league.)
But Howard has received none of the praise that Collins did. The reason is fairly obvious. The longtime Orlando Magic star was named in a civil lawsuit this year that alleges he sexually assaulted a man at his Georgia home in July 2021. Howard, who is not facing criminal charges over the alleged incident, said that he engaged in “consensual sexual activity” with the man but denies assault. Howard has never technically come out: in text messages between the player and the alleged victim that were included as exhibits in the suit, Howard denies he is gay but says he enjoys a varied sex life. On Instagram Live, he said, “Whatever I’m doing in my bedroom is my damn business … Whatever you are doing in your bedroom is your damn business.” In any ensuing comments since the court documents leaked, he has remained ambiguous, simply denying the accusations of wrongdoing.
The media reaction has been to conflate something that is clearly troubling (allegations of sexual assault) with something that is clearly not (Howard’s sexuality).
The allegations in the lawsuit, like any case of sexual assault, are deeply disturbing. If the jury finds for the plaintiff, Howard should be punished heavily. But Howard is being tried for his alleged behavior, not his sexuality. And rather than talking about a troubling case of sexual assault involving a famous athlete, many in the media have been quick to use Howard’s sexuality as a punchline or as speculation to why he is no longer in the NBA. The pundits have already flooded the airwaves with their “ayooo’s” and “pauses”, including the It Is What It Is talkshow with rappers Cam’ron and Mase. Mase claimed that Howard’s sexuality is the reason he is no longer in the NBA.
“People will say, ‘It don’t matter.’ But as soon as they find out, it matters,” the former Bad Boy rapper said. “So they outing them. When it comes down to making money off the story, it matters. When it comes down to who dating you it’s gonna matter. When it comes down to if you’re gonna be in the locker room with them, it matters. Because there’s about 30 teams who didn’t sign Dwight Howard because it matters.”
While Cam’ron and Mase are entitled to speculate on whether Howard’s private life has affected his professional life, they approached it with the same, tired of mixture of amusement and discomfort that many in the media still take when discussing sexuality.
But perhaps that is to be expected of Cam’ron and Mase, who never claim to be mainstream journalists. The same cannot be said for ESPN’s Stephen A Smith, arguably the most high-profile voice in US sports. He detailed the allegations against Howard with barely disguised contempt at the thought of sex between men, while poking fun at the player’s predicament. Howard’s sexuality should have zero bearing on his capacity to play professional basketball – not least after rampant infidelity and scandal have rocked the NBA for decades and ensnared some of the greatest ever to play the game.
And what seems to offend many around the NBA, including Smith, isn’t that Howard is alleged to have committed sexual assault – it’s that his narrative involves sex between men. When Collins came out, he did so in a way that was easily digestible to the masses. He had no scandal or accusations. He was never even thought to be gay, and he didn’t have a partner when he came out. Nor was he involved in any scandals involving his sexuality. NBA fans could adopt a “see no evil, hear no evil” mentality.
Howard, on the other hand, has fought accusations for years by queer men and transgender women who have claimed they have hooked up with him. In 2018, Howard was accused of threatening a man who said the NBA star cheated on him. Howard spoke about the allegations with Fox Sports while denying he was gay.
There is another element to this: Howard’s conservative, Christian upbringing in Atlanta. Much was made about his squeaky-clean image coming out of the private Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. Then, when he was picked No 1 overall in 2004 by the Magic, he tried fast and hard to live up to the expectations of a publicly Christian celebrity. He often struggled to live up to those expectations – he has five children with five women, none of whom he has married. Of course, many Christians are accepting of different sexualities, but Howard’s admission he has had same-sex relations will hardly have endeared him further to many of his religious fans.
“My mission was to preach God’s Word in the NBA, use the NBA as a platform for God,” Howard said in 2016. “There’s times where it was very overwhelming. It was like, man, this is so much that everything is at my disposal. All I got to do was just go reach, and it’s mine.”
Everything wrong with the reaction to Howard’s situation can be found in the media’s response. The conversations online aren’t around justice or equality or victims of sexual assault. Instead, we’ve only gotten memes, jokes and roasts about Howard’s sexuality (something which the player himself has not helped by making posts of his own). Whether Howard is gay or bisexual or experimenting is meaningless and should have no bearing on his career opportunities and legacy. The grave allegations against him should be thoroughly investigated. The details of his sexuality should not.