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In the tactical battleground that is modern professional basketball, there’s a variety of opinion regarding just what represents the best countermeasure available to players who’ve fallen victim to the Great NBA Kiss-Cam Ambush.
Here’s the setup: The horn sounds for a time out. The teams go to their benches. And, lest the fans grow bored as the players strategize, cameras prowl the stands to focus on couples, who are duly displayed up on the Jumbo-Tron, surrounded by a heart and encouraged to kiss for the cheering crowd. Pro-sports kiss-camming has been around since teams began enhancing the arena televisual experience a couple decades back. Somewhere along the line, a home-team wiseacre invented the Kiss-Cam Ambush, in which the footage of lovebirds in the audience elides into a final shot of a pair of players from the opposing team.
Because, you see, there’s nothing quite as insulting to the rival squad as suggesting that two of their guys might want to kiss each other.
The ambush is sufficiently well established that, by now, it has a bunch of regional variations. In Atlanta, cameras are liable to expand the pool of ambushees to include same-sex spectators who happen to be wearing the opposing team’s jersey. In Oklahoma City, they’ll occasionally show two referees or the local announcers. At one Los Angeles Lakers game, the kiss-cam zoomed in on Dustin Hoffman and Jason Bateman. Who, of course, kissed.
Likewise, most players seem to have settled on a response in advance. This year at the Verizon Center, J.J. Redick of the Orlando Magic tried to hide himself under a towel until the coast was clear. Jarrett Jack and Aaron Gray of the New Orleans Hornets sneaked glances at the screen while pretending to focus on the game. James Posey of the Indiana Pacers gave his Jumbo-Tron image an obdurate stare, a pointed index finger resting on his temple. Marcin Gortat of the Phoenix Suns stuck his tongue out behind the head of a rookie teammate. And Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics pursed his lips while teammate Kendrick Perkins shielded his face from view.
But, for players visiting Washington, at least, this one piece of basketball’s mental game ended in January. Just before a game against the Denver Nuggets, the Wizards stopped running the Kiss-Cam Ambush gimmick. (The team played its last home game of the season Monday night.)
What happened? Team spokesman Brian Sereno indicates that the practice was halted due to a complaint—though he won’t say exactly who didn’t think it was that funny. By email, owner Ted Leonsis declines comment.
This isn’t the first time a kiss-cam proved controversial. A couple years ago, the Washington Mystics’ managing partner told The Washington Post that she’d be uncomfortable with a kiss-cam that focused on same-sex couples—despite the Women’s National Basketball Association team’s significant lesbian following. The dubious explanation: “We got a lot of kids here… we just don’t find it appropriate.”
But in abandoning the ambush, the Wizards, who share an owner and a stadium with the Mystics, have won some plaudits. “When they show opposing players, clearly they’re just doing it for fun and to make them feel awkward,” says Brent Minor, a spokesman for TeamDC, a gay and lesbian sports-advocacy organization. Minor won’t say that there was anything intentionally homophobic about the ambushes. “But it does raise the larger question of if somebody was actually gay; there is sensitivity to that. So I think it was probably the best course of action,” he says.
Those looking for signs of gay-friendliness in pro sports can find plenty of local examples, many of them at 7th and F streets NW. The Wizards hosted a GLBT community night on March 2. And Leonsis, who also owns the NHL’s Washington Capitals, has used his own blog to tout Puck Buddies, a site advertised as being “for boys who like boys who like hockey.” TeamDC is having an inaugural event at a Mystics game this summer. Of course, they’re also working with the Washington Nationals for their seventh annual “Night OUT” at the ballpark this June, according to Minor.
But the change may not have been about being respectful of the people in the audience at all: In a subsequent conversation, Sereno says concern for visiting players’ feelings was a factor.
NBA players, though, profess not to find kiss-cam ambushes especially insulting. “They put me on it the last time I was here,” says ex-Wizard Etan Thomas, now of the Atlanta Hawks. “It’s funny. I don’t know. I don’t look at it as deep as I guess everyone else who talks about it looks at it. It’s funny, so I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
“It’s pretty funny,” says former Georgetown Hoya Roy Hibbert, who plays for the Indiana Pacers. “A couple times they’ve had it on myself and one of my teammates, and I’ll fake like I’m pulling him in for a kiss or something like that. But I’ll only do it if I’m having a good game, if we’re winning.”
Hibbert says he wasn’t surprised to see the gimmick come to an end here. “I grew up in D.C., and D.C. is a very political city, very liberal, so I understand where people are coming from,” Hibbert says. “I think it’s a fun thing, but obviously if complaints were made, then you got to take it seriously.”
Jack Kogod, one of the founders of the popular NFL blog Kissing Suzy Kobler, a site whose name tells of when kissing on camera teeters between comical and uncomfortable, says he hopes the decision was motivated by something bigger. “I’d like to see a closeted player be able to come out while still in the league,” says Kogod, whose family has held Wizards season tickets for decades. “Using mock-homosexuality for laughs is getting us further away from that point in time… I can understand why they’ve done it at games in the past, people do laugh. That doesn’t mean it’s something that should continue.”
When someone finally writes the history of gay rights in sports, the story of an openly gay active player in one of the big four American pro sports leagues will be a huge deal. But, all the same, the slow disappearance of practices like the Kiss-Cam Ambush—premised on the notion that same-sex kisses are inherently insulting—ought to count as a bit of progress, too.
Not that there aren’t battles left to fight, even in Leonsis’ comparatively benevolent stadium: The kiss-cam continues, and, so far, the couples are always opposite-sex.