(This story was published in 2002).
By: Joan M. Garry
You probably saw coverage of the Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis brawl -- oops, I mean press conference -- a couple of weeks ago. It was on the front page of many newspapers, and heavily bleeped video ran on CNN, ESPN and local television stations across the county. And sports commentators, of course, had a field day with it.
Not that this was really news. Mike Tyson biting someone and being generally loutish is pretty much a given whenever he appears in public. But there's another side of this incident you may not be as aware of.
After the brawl, Tyson hurled a series of epithets at a reporter who sensibly (if a bit too loudly) observed, "He should be in a straitjacket."
"Come here and say that to my face, you faggot!" was just the beginning of Tyson's violent outburst, and what followed was a stream of slurs, threats and unprintable obscenities -- including the threat of raping the male reporter and repeated use of the word "faggot." Tyson has since offered an apology for the incident, saying he doesn't consider himself a "role model" and sees himself as "politically incorrect."
But in the focus on the Tyson brawl and its fallout, including the Nevada Athletic Commission's decision to deny him a boxing license, the sports media machine has carefully avoided the anti-gay content of Tyson's outburst.
Sports commentator Keith Olbermann, during a guest-stint on CNN's "The Point", was typical. "I'm just worried [by] reports that the only damage Mike was able to do is to leave a slight strawberry on Lewis' leg," quipped Olbermann. "I mean, that's a problem. Apparently Cousin Mike still has his jab, but he's lost his bite."
Clever? Sure. But accurate reporting? Hardly. And Olbermann wasn't alone in downplaying the "other" part of Tyson's press conference performance.
You wouldn't know from coverage of the Mike Tyson/Lennox Lewis press conference brawl that Tyson threatened to rape a male reporter after calling him a ``faggot.'' (by Kathy Willens/AP)
WHY DON'T SPORTS WRITERS want to run with this? Maybe some think that reporting such epithets will offend gays. News flash: too late for that! Maybe they've become so accustomed to casual homophobia in sports that it just washed right over them.
Sometimes journalists do break the mold and report on homophobia in sports, although generally it's in response to a controversy. Last May, we witnessed a media frenzy at the mere hint of an unnamed gay professional baseball player.
In December, chaos erupted when one of the players in the new women's football league came out in the pages of Sports Illustrated for Women. And the marketing challenges faced by the WNBA have been fodder for features on whether lesbians are a desirable part of a sports team's fan base.
But these reports aren't enough to tell the whole story of homophobia in sports. Anti-gay and sexist put-downs are still the most common way for athletes to humiliate their opponents and even for coaches to "motivate" athletes.
TYSON MAY NOT have broken any new ground with his anti-gay slurs. Not surprisingly, it turns out that Tyson himself had been taunted in a similar manner before the press conference by former boxer Mitchell Rose, a Lewis supporter. Rose had screamed, "[Tyson's] a homosexual, a faggot, and someone needs to do something about him."
Pretty vicious cycle, isn't it?
Eminem justified using the word "fag" in similar fashion. "The most lowest degrading thing that you can say to a man when you're battling him is call him a faggot and try to take away his manhood," he said. I don't doubt that Eminem's take on the word "faggot" ranks among its common, popular meanings, but that doesn't make the word any less damaging.
Many will react to Tyson with the old adage that "boys will be boys." But that defense is a convenient excuse for homophobia, and the sports media owe us more than a collective wink, or even a shrug. They have a responsibility to examine the sports culture that told Tyson it was OK to say those things in the first place.
Joan Garry is executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation