Editor’s Note: Over our two year (and counting) run, The Diss has published 635 pieces of basketball writing. Piece number 636 by Kris Fenrich—you may know him as fendo who runs the site Dancing With Noah—is the one that we are undoubtedly most proud of. –KD & JG
I clicked open Kevin’s Monday Media Story about the different paths taken by Tim Hardaway (homophobic epithets), Jason Collins (came out of the closet) and Kenny Anderson (acknowledged being sexually abused as a child) to confront and address social issues and was immediately struck by the positive, if inevitable, direction our macho, muscle-bound sporting culture taken. In the case of Hardaway, his insensitive, admittedly homophobic, comments almost felt like a final public remnant of that bygone world of athletic intolerance. To Kevin’s point, it was a short seven years ago that Hardaway spewed out those asinine, hateful, homophobic comments. It was just a few days ago that the Philadelphia Eagles’ white wide receiver Riley Cooper was caught on camera using a racial epithet targeting African Americans. The Russian Minister of Sport, Vitaly Mutko, has vowed to arrest any gay or lesbian athletes who go, “out into the streets and start to propagandize…” at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. And it was probably less than five minutes ago that a pro athlete made a gay joke or used a homophobic insult towards a friend, a teammate or opponent. Yet we’re still moving forward slowly like white capped waves of truth washing away painful shame, secrets and fear from the shoulders of athletes like Hardaway, Collins, Anderson and Keyon Dooling.
Even with the overt (Russia) and stupid (Cooper) examples of intolerance, we continue to move forward and reshape a sporting culture that has preferred its athletes to not necessarily keep quiet, but to keep quiet when it comes to painful topics and social issues. Predecessors like Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Jim Brown, Oscar Robertson, Curt Flood, Billie Jean King and Harry Edwards have proudly and bravely waved the flag of social, racial and gender equality and each of those athletes made sacrifices in the name of a principle greater than the sport they played. Where Anderson, Collins and Keyon Dooling, who also came out about last summer with his experiences being sexually abused as a kid, break with this tradition is twofold:
- Each of these athletes challenges our society’s simplistic stereotypical view of male athletes as strong, virile, internalizing heterosexual men. We’re used to our jocks looking like Joe Namath, bedding women like Wilt Chamberlain, oozing handsome confidence like Joe Montana, charming both genders like Magic Johnson, competing like Michael Jordan and marrying supermodels like Tom Brady. We’re not used to our supporting casts, our hardhat-wearing post players who body up Shaq on the block, coming out of closets, and we’re also not comfortable taking showers next to them. As ridiculous as Tim Hardaway’s comments were, he was putting a voice (albeit, a strongly worded and hateful voice) to a fear that some heterosexual men have regarding being in a locker room with a gay man—or going to war with a gay man. The uncertainty, the unknown, the years of phobia and stigma are lurking in the minds of some of our favorite athletes; Hardaway just happened to lack enough self-awareness to either keep it to himself or seek to resolve his feelings prior to his severe lack in judgment.
- Anderson and Dooling bring up a different set of cultural challenges: the male as a victim of sexual abuse, which contrasts sharply with any stereotypical masculine ideas. It’s hard enough for males to confront their own victimhood, let alone when they’re raised in an atmosphere that demands toughness and insists on suppressing pain (physical and emotional) in favor of the sacrifices necessary to win. Being singularly driven to succeed in the highly competitive world of amateur sports leaves little time for emotional development; particularly for adolescents struggling to process abuse of any kind.
The inability to properly process the kind of abuse Dooling and Anderson endured can commonly result in other masking behaviors or eventually in traumas that reveal abuse that occurred decades in the past. Not surprisingly, this occurred to both of them:
Dooling: I actually had such a meltdown that I had to get professional help and I ended up in the hospital…
Anderson: People don’t understand and know why I did the things I did. Because of my upbringing and no foundation and dysfunctional home and drug addicts and alcoholics … I kinda put the wall up and really just threw it in the closet.
This is also alluded to in David Roth’s piece on Anderson on SB Nation where he writes: “If it’s difficult to imagine all those years of not dealing with all that hurt — or of dealing with it by womanizing and drinking too much and other exhausting, costly ways of not dealing with things…”
For those of us who have been sexually abused and tucked that shameful secret away—not in a closet but in an impenetrable sooty blackness somewhere deep in our own personal stigmatized hell—to be able to say or write or admit the truth becomes somewhat liberating (there’s a lot of work to be done after the acknowledgement), but mostly it’s the beginning of a long healing process. My wife (fiancée at the time), my dad and my therapist are the only people who know what happened to me until now. To write these words and follow the footsteps laid by strong, courageous men is scary and exciting and cathartic. That Kenny Anderson (of all people) inspired me and reached out at the right time is evidence of the power athletes can carry. For all his Georgia Tech dominance and short-lived NBA success, Anderson never inspired me with his talent. Dooling didn’t motivate me with his career as a backup combo guard, and Jason Collins was more of a wallflower roaming around the backdrop of the NBA panorama than any memorable on-court contributor. But with their stories, each of these men has begun to shed the pain of shame and secrecy and reinforce a path for people to walk with honesty and integrity. By indirectly confronting the myths of masculinity, each man has become something greater through his words than he ever could’ve been on the basketball court.
Part of the sharing process is the realization that you’re not the only one who’s been in this situation and bottled up these feelings and confusion. There are details in the stories of Dooling and Anderson that I can directly relate to. Even as a (mostly) well-adjusted adult, sometimes the deeply suppressed emotions of youth can be impossible or scary to confront. For a long time I was sure that I would never admit to what had happened so many years ago. I was resolved to bottle it up and cope in my own ways. It was about 18 months ago I was finally able to open up and tell my wife what happened to me, but it’s taken the context of an athlete and my own recovery process to finally be able to speak out about it to a broader audience. As I talked to my therapist about writing this piece, one thing she cautioned me of was that once it’s out there, there’s no pulling it back. It’s scary to walk out on that branch and risk being judged or stigmatized, but it’s a little easier when you know you’re not alone.
And sadly, given the recent revelations by Anderson and Dooling along with the Sandusky scandal, it’s a certainty that the few athletes who have chosen to open up have a world of company out there. I’ll close with a quote from Kenny and hope that my writing this is proof of the power of opening up about abuse and provides someone else with the same courage that was given to me.
The bottom line, if I could help somebody and they see Kenny Anderson got molested and he’s talking about it, now people are going to come out and maybe be able to tell their story.