The New York Police Department released video last night of eight New York Knicks fans whom cops want to question in a potential hate crime that, the victims say, involved homophobic slurs, flying fists, pulling hair and more, right outside Madison Square Garden. And that kind of attack against a gay couple, by a bunch of straight guys in Carmelo Anthony jerseys outside an NBA playoff game, is exactly what pro sports leagues have been worried about — even before the official embrace of Jason Collins's coming out last week. Indeed, if the straight players can accept the new reality of gay players, this may be a microcosm of the final hurdle: Sports fans need to get with it.
After initially releasing a photo of one man in connection with Sunday's alleged attack, the NYPD is now trying to identify this entire band of apparent Knicks supporters:
Those guys are wanted for questioning in an ongoing hate-crime investigation into an incident that left 27-year-old Nick Porto with a broken nose, his 22-year-old partner Kevin Atkins with a broken wrist, and their belongings, including a cellphone, destroyed — all after an afternoon walk home from a long Sunday brunch. "A group of Knicks fans were upset about the game and they just decided to 'fag bash' the two of us," Porto wrote on Facebook, according to Gothamist. "They called us f----ts," Porto said, according to DNAinfo. "They made fun of my jeans — I made the jeans myself, for that day." At which point Porto says he and Atkins were kicked and punched while on the ground: "Fists started flying. I was on the ground, and the only thing I could do, I reached out and grabbed someone's hair."
The alleged attack occurred on Sunday at around 5 p.m., or around the third quarter of the Knicks's Round Two opener against the Indiana Pacers, when they were down big and fans started heading for the exits before mounting a late comeback. Police say the incident occurred on Eighth Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets, just a block from Madison Square Garden's fan exit — and, as most New Yorkers could tell you, right between two of the city's most prominent gay neighborhoods, Hell's Kitchen and Chelsea. It's not uncommon to see same-sex partners holding hands in that area, but it appears Porto is blaming himself for the attack: "I'm so upset — it's my fault, I spoke back to them — that Kevin was hit. He didn't deserve it whatsoever," Porto told DNAinfo.
Nobody deserves to beaten on the street outside a sports arena, and this is clearly a small segment of allegedly abusive fans who may not have even attended the game, but the sports world may have seen this coming. After Collins came out in Sports Illustrated last Monday, the NBA and dozens of its players rushed to support the announcement — even the Knicks's Anthony, the jersey of whom at least one of Sunday's attackers was wearing, acknowledged the wave of positivity: "You see everybody supporting his decision. I'm just glad he came out. A secret like that can eat you alive." But an occasionally angry dialogue continued all week amongst fans and commentators. Even Collins, writing in SI, said he expected mixed reactions from fans:
As far as the reaction of fans, I don't mind if they heckle me. I've been booed before. There have been times when I've wanted to boo myself. But a lot of ill feelings can be cured by winning.
And there were immediate questions about how the NBA and the NFL would really handle the historic moment. But even the major pro leagues that have been championing gay rights, like the NHL and increasingly the NFL, have had ongoing concerns that it was anti-gay fans they were most concerned about. "In the N.F.L., the league's security department would monitor public reaction, looking for potential threats from fans in the event a player comes out," The New York Times reported last month. Meanwhile, CBS's Mike Freeman, in reporting the early word that potential NFL gay player might be considering coming out as well, insisted that players weren't the hold-up — fans were:
This player's true concern, I'm told, is not the reaction inside an NFL locker room but outside of it. The player fears he will suffer serious harm from homophobic fans, and that is the only thing preventing him from coming out. My sources will not say who this alleged player is.
According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Thursday, almost seven in 10 Americans supported Collins's decision to come out, and 55 percent of 1,008 people polled said that they support gay marriage. That's excellent news for the LGBT community and gay rights advocates — it shows that Americans are growing more tolerant as their role models do — but a poll of a thousand people seems a lot less real in the face of ugly violence on the real streets of Manhattan.