Dwight Howard has essentially come out — and almost no one is talking about it

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Future Basketball Hall of Famer Dwight Howard spent the week defending himself from sexual assault and battery accusations in civil court. It’s rare for a defense to be the headline, but in Howard’s case, he took the drastic measure of admitting that the July 2021 encounter with his accuser, Stephen Harper, was a consensual one. According to court documents obtained by ESPN, Howard claimed he engaged in consensual sexual activity with Harper at his Georgia home.

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Howard didn’t come out on his own. Harper’s initial complaint included screenshots of an exchange between him and Howard, in addition to an Uber receipt corroborating parts of Harper’s allegations about their relationship. In July 2022, Harper filed an incident report with the Gwinnett County Police Department.

In one alleged exchange, Howard vehemently denied being gay while simultaneously arranging a hookup. Harper alleges that Howard demanded a threesome and that Howard performed oral sex without consent and later forced him to do the same. Howard denied those allegations through his attorney Justin Bailey, who asserted that Harper’s suit was preceded by an extortion attempt.

“The truth is Mr. Howard blocked Mr. Harper on social media and then was confronted with two options — pay to protect his reputation or have a fabricated story made public. Despite being an easy target due to the subject matter and his status as a celebrity, Mr. Howard chose to trust in the justice system and will rely on all future court filings to speak for themselves,” Bailey told ESPN.

The civil case will continue to play out, yet, there’s also the second half of this to unpack. A former No. 1 overall pick, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and future Hall of Famer came out of the closet — intentionally or not — and it barely drew a mention nationally outside of Stephen A. Smith squeamishly reading through the report and poking fun at the details on his YouTube show. 

One cogent idea Smith raised is the possibility that teams have avoided Howard to evade the distractions that would follow a player of his stature coming out before or during the season. Considering Harper filed an incident report around the time Howard’s career came to a screeching halt in 2022, there is a very real possibility that interested teams caught wind of the lawsuit. Howard has sought opportunities to revive his NBA career, but has been shunned, aside from a September workout for the Golden State Warriors that ended up being a dud.

Teams have seemingly collectively decided Howard is too far over the hill to contribute on the court and too sophomoric to serve as a veteran influence on the bench or locker room. Yet, the thorny circumstances behind his disclosure about his sexuality warranted more of a mention than it’s received. The trio of NBA players who had previously come out were journeymen such as Jason Collins, John Amaechi, and Isaac Humphries. If Howard’s statement and Instagram Live video acknowledging his non-hetero preferences weren’t accompanying a sexual assault allegation, he’d likely be receiving praise in many corners other than awkward silence.

There have been consistent whispers about Howard’s sexuality for more than a decade. But as an athlete hailing from a churchgoing family in the South, he had double the reason to remain on the down low. Much of it was hearsay that couldn’t be substantiated nor did it rise to a level of journalistic scrutiny. Those scoops shriveled up and died on the vine as fodder and content for the lowest common denominator internet rags. Most significantly, in 2018, Howard was accused of threatening a man who said Howard cheated on him. Howard called those allegations “false,” and in an interview with Fox Sports, adamantly denied being gay and explained that the rumors made him “never want to come outside again.”

In that context, Howard’s ongoing civil trial is a lose-lose. Under the best-case scenario, his trust was breached and he was forced out by someone looking to take advantage of his secret. Worst case, he sexually assaulted a man in his home, is dodging blame, and has escaped criminal culpability. It’s a salacious story which is made even more awkward by the fact that he would be the most prominent American pro athlete to come out of the closet.

The irony of Howard’s predicament is that he began his career as a God-fearing 18-year-old, No. 1 overall pick out of private Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. The DeVos family, which owns the Orlando Magic, has been more transparent than most in regard to their involvement in Christian causes, including, but not limited to controversial anti-gay organizations.

If teams have been avoiding Howard, it likely isn’t because of the sexual assault suit. Derrick Rose fought more serious allegations in civil court at the nadir of his career, but never fell out of the rotation. Currently, Miles Bridges was arrested a second time for violating a protective order just one year after savagely beating his wife. The NBA has rarely shown concern for addressing offenders within their ranks.

Howard essentially coming out as gay or bisexual when he was a high school phenom, during the marquee player stage of his career, or even when he was a contributor off the bench, would have been a significant news bulletin. This week, his statement was a blip. Howard was flushed out of the league after the 2022 campaign by the Lakers and spent much of last season in Taiwan. He still holds the Magic career record for total points, rebounds, and blocks, and led them to the NBA Finals in 2010. The relatively muted response to Howard’s admission to consensual sexual activity with another man is either a sign that society has evolved enough that the coast is clear for gay pro athletes or that the NBA’s cold shoulder worked.

Follow DJ Dunson on X: @cerebralsportex

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