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Queer eye for the sports guy

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A scholar looks at sports talk radio, focusing on Jim Rome, and how it deals with gay and lesbian issues.

(An excerpt from the book "Beer, Babes, and Balls: Masculinity and Sports Talk Radio," by David Nylund. Reprinted by permission)

By David Nylund

In their analysis of sport media’s treatment of women, critical sport scholars have revealed how stereotyped images of femininity and heterosexuality serve to reinforce heterosexual dominance (referred to as heteronormativity) and trivialize women’s sporting endeavors
(Creedon, 1994; Griffin, 1998; Messner 2002).

Moreover, homophobic representations of female athletes, particularly the symbolic erasure of women who participate in sports traditionally considered a male preserve, play a vital role in perpetuating male hegemony. My analysis of sports talk radio indicates that not only does the discourse of sports radio trivialize female athletes, it portrays women who challenge traditional gender boundaries as “unnatural” and “deviant.” I will provide some textual examples on Rome’s show illustrating the ways that lesbian females are represented in sports radio.

I will argue that sports radio, as part of the masculine sports/media complex,maintains heterosexism by emphasizing conventional standards of white, heterosexual femininity and marginalizing female athletes who race, gender, and sexuality in the jungle subvert traditional gender and sexual roles. These representations help produce and reinforce traditional femininities and contain the perceived threat of lesbian presence in sport. In addition, sports talk radio, by making invisible the presence of lesbians in sports, helps to naturalize sex and gender differences and reinforces ideas about women’s physical inferiority. I will also discuss some ways in which the masculine performance of some female athletes disrupts and subverts hegemonic masculinity and how that is addressed within sports talk radio.

"Beer, Babes, and Balls: Masculinity and Sports Talk Radio," by David Nylund.
Numerous authors have made the claim that the “lesbian presence” in sport is threatening because it challenges male hegemony by upsetting existing power structures based on gender and sexuality (Birrell,1998; Griffin, 1998; Halberstam, 1998). The question is why? Feminist scholar Monique Wittig (1993) and queer scholar Judith Butler (1990) both assert that there is no such thing as a natural category of women; women are culturally produced, not born. Similarly, Wittig argues that lesbians also are socially constructed artifacts whose existence poses a direct threat to heterosexist assumptions regarding the so-called natural connection between sexuality and gender.

According to Wittig, refusing to perform heterosexuality is equivalent to refusing to become a woman. This refusal has particular material consequences for lesbians that relate to men’s control over women: “For a lesbian this [refusal] goes further than the refusal of the role ‘woman.’It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man” (p. 105).

Following Wittig’s argument, sport becomes a particularly troublesome area of concern because female athletes, regardless of their sexual orientation, fit the profile of lesbians: they are frequently in groups without men; they are physically active in ways that do not have to do with being sexually appealing to men; and they are engaged in activities that do not fit with traditional specifications for heterosexual motherhood (mothers, wives).

Griffin (1998) suggests that the traditional sports media complex produces fears regarding the presence of lesbians in sport: (1) that there is an overabundance of women athletes who are lesbian; and (2) that sports participation causes females to be become lesbian. By exploiting such popularly held assumptions, those who oppose women’s attempts to gain equal access to sporting resources and opportunities bring forth homophobic assumptions about lesbians running rampant in sport. Griffin (1998) suggests that a particularly effective way to prevent any challenge to male hegemony is to label female athletes as lesbians. This tactic threatens to silence and marginalize all female athletes, regardless of their sexual orientation. Women are thus discouraged from participation in sports and those who do participate are constantly navigating a homophobic landscape, making behavior choices in response to an ever-present threat of censure or ridicule. In this way, traditional gender relations are reinforced, and even as female athletes engage the domain of sports, the male preserve of sport is maintained. Homophobia regulates the behavior of female athletes and discourages significant challenges to traditionally male preserves.

Sports talk radio plays an important role in reinforcing traditional standards of white, heterosexual femininity. For example, Jim Rome rarely interviews female athletes, and, when he does, they tend to be those who meet contemporary standards of white, heterosexual femininity. Examples include Gabrielle Reece, a skilled volleyball player who is best known for her modeling career, including her appearance in Playboy magazine. On the rare occasion when female sporting events earn coverage on sports radio shows, inevitably the focus turns to the athletes’ femininity and adherence to heterosexual beauty standards. Heterosexually attractive women athletes are appropriated by consumer capitalism (and women’s leagues like the WNBA and LPGA) to promote their sport. Tisha Pinicheiro, Lisa Leslie, Sue Bird, and other WNBA players were represented in the 2003 season promotionswearing suggestive clothing, makeup, and engaging in more traditionally feminine activities, thereby constructing a less threatening, more “family-friendly” atmosphere for their games. As media scholar Pam Creedon (1998) notes, “Homosexuality doesn’t sell” (p. 96).

The WNBA’s marketing strategy reflects this conventional construction of female athletics, symbolically erasing lesbians, bisexuals, queers, and women performing female masculinity (until WNBA player Sheryl Swoopes ‘came out’ in 2005). Female athleticism is further regulated by the explicit value placed on women’s sport activities. Sports talk radio, in its function of advertisement and promotion of the sporting industry, assigns particular value to sporting events based at least partly on gender. Women’s sporting events are rarely covered. This gap in coverage is conspicuous in a media age in which many new or previously local and “niche” sporting events have gained national coverage.

Some feminist scholars have questioned whether female participation in sports is a productive activity that empowers women. For instance, Varda Burstyn (1999) suggests that while there is value in women learning to be active, she is uncomfortable with the hypermasculine values in sports:
U.S. culture, influenced by men’s culture, is marked by an intense denigration of the feminine and its associated qualities of softness, receptivity, cooperation,and compassion. Today’s erotic flesh is hard, muscled, tense, and mean. The unquestioning emulation of hypermasculinity by women does not constitute androgyny or gender neutrality, but rather the triumph of hypermasculinism. (p. 267)


Burstyn’s essentialist argument implies that women who engage in sports and take up practices that are typically assigned to maleness are reproducing the gender status quo. Her argument suggests that female athletes inadvertently internalize dominant masculine norms that colonize women’s imaginations.

However, Burstyn misses out on a more complicated analysis of the ambiguous joys and potential insubordinate ways that women who appropriate masculinity through sports are creating a challenge to male hegemony. Drawing on the queer scholarship of Judith Halberstam (1998) and Jose Munoz (1999), I suggest that women who participate in sports usually associated with male physicality and aggressiveness (rugby, hockey, football, and weightlifting) are not necessarily reproducing dominant masculinity but are engaged in what Munoz refers to as
“disidentification.” Disidentification is “a mode of dealing with dominant ideology, one that neither opts to assimilate within a structure nor strictly opposite it” (Halberstam, 1998, p. 248). Hence, sports participation in traditionally male preserves becomes a site of cultural struggle and feminist transformation by actively disidentifying with dominant forms of masculinity and producing alternative forms of masculinity. Cox, Johnson, Newitz, and Sandell (1997), in their essay, “Masculinity without Men,” concur with Halberstam’s argument:

The idea that some women might want to assume certain “masculine” traits or consider themselves as “male identified” does not suggest that women are becoming like men, but rather that the relationship between gendered roles and biological sex is more fluid than we have been taught to believe . . . Neither does such a shift automatically signal a regressive step for feminism. (p. 178).


'Martin' Navratilova


Thus, the cultivation and performance of female masculinity through alternative sports subverts male hegemony and is not an exact replica of biological maleness. Wheatley (1994), in line with Halberstam’s argument, suggests the women who engage in sporting activities outside the mainstream sports hold greater potential for resistant sport forms. She conducted an ethnographic study of women’s rugby clubs and posits that women’s rugby is a site where women consciously rebelled against cultural definitions of appropriate sporting activities for women. In their
appropriation of the hypermasculine rituals of men’s rugby, particularly the sexist and lewd lyrics of male drinking songs, female rugby athletes infiltrate even the “malest” of male preserves. Their incursion into the rugby subculture challenges rugby practices as essential male practices. In addition, women rugby players, according to Wheatley, disturb the alliance between male hegemony and homophobia. In the world of sports radio, however, women’s alternative sports are erased and female athletes who transgress heterosexual femininity by performing female masculinity are subject to ridicule. For instance, Martina Navratilova is referred to as “Martin” by Jim Rome due to her “mannishness.” When Navratilova critiqued U.S. foreign policy, this was Rome’s response:

Martin Navratilova got some issues off his chest it seems. There were some things on his mind. “The most absurd part of my escape from an unjust system is that I have exchanged one system that oppresses opinion for another . . . the Republicans in the United States manipulate public opinion and sweep any controversial issues under the table. It’s depressing.” Martin, you’re free to leave the millions upon millions of dollars you’ve made at our expense and bolt for the open societies of China or maybe North Korea. I apologize for the oppressive country that is the United States. You may find that Afghanistan is more to your liking. How niiice of you to compare the United States to former Czechoslovakia. I didn’t know it was that oppressive here. Thank you for enlightening me. But since you truly believe that, there are planes leaving every hour. I think you have enough money in your rather large bank account to afford a flight out. And considering that we are all about the money, maybe you should leave your millions at the door when you leave. I don’t see the oppression when she is entitled to live her life, make her truckloads of money and even have the opportunity to express her misguided opinion. That’s the beauty of America. She’s entitled and free to express her opinion, regardless of how ill-informed, ridiculous, inappropriate, ill-conceived, unbelievable and ultimately wrong it may happen to be. She’s free to do that. Not only that, she’s free to leave her ungodly wealth on the kitchen table, drive her luxury car to the airport and buy a one-way ticket to either the Czech Republic or some Middle Eastern country that espouses more “liberal” ideologies . . . especially in regards to women. If Martin is looking for a place where you can express your opinion, earn a living and lead a decent life, this is not a bad place to do it. I happen to disagree with Martin. Yes, we have our problems and issues, but relatively speaking . . . Martin has been one of the bigger beneficiaries of the American Dream. (June 2, 2002)


Jim Rome
In this excerpt, Rome refers to Navratilova as “Martin,” pathologizing her transgressive (challenging the natural gender order) performance of female masculinity as “unnatural.” Because Navratilova offers a critique of U.S. policy, her transgression extends from the site of sexuality and gender to all the orders of patriarchy and the nation. Her activist voice and political critique are undermined by Rome’s mockery and uncritical jingoism.

Some (Messner, 2002) have argued that there has been some slight improvement in the area of homophobia and sports. For instance, Rome has interviewed three male athletes who “came out” after they retired (I will discuss this later). Rome’s focus on homophobia has privileged the gay male athlete. On a few occasions, he has commented on the strong lesbian fan presence in the WNBA. For instance, on August 4, 2002, a group of New York fans self-named as “Lesbians for Liberty” staged a kiss-in at a New York Liberty women’s basketball game to protest Liberty’s lack of promoting and acknowledging its strong lesbian fan base. Here are Rome’s comments in regard to the “kiss-in”:
But when I go to any sporting event, I could do without any public displays of affection. Man and man, man and woman, woman and woman, old dude, young woman . . . whatever. It’s inappropriate in that setting. It’s a sporting event. We’re not talking about protesting the right of lesbians to play in the WNBA or some other right that is being denied. We’re talking about the public acknowledgment of that which is private in nature. I don’t care if you’re into necrophilia, bestiality, or any other type of sexual preference. It’s not meant for public display. (August 5, 2002)


Rome expresses a common discourse in contemporary society: the tolerance and privacy discourse. In the age of some increased visibility of gays and lesbians and the commodification of queerness through television shows such as Queer as Folk and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, this liberal tolerance discourse frames the issue that we are “all just people” and hence reduces sexuality to a private, individualized matter. This discourse, according to Celia Kitzinger (1997), suggests that lesbians need to conform to the tenets of heteronormativity and assimilate to the existing social structure. Queer scholar Lisa Duggan (2002) refers to this assimilationist ideology as “new homonormativity -- a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (p. 179). Kitzinger and Duggan reject such a privatized approach because it fails to consider heterosexuality and lesbianism as socially constructed political institutions. Hence, when Rome does represent lesbian sexuality, it is contained within a liberal, private framework that reinforces heterosexual privilege (heterosexuals engaging in public display of affection at sporting events) and homophobia.

Lesbian sexuality was discussed on Rome’s show when WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes “came out” in the fall of 2005. This was a groundbreaking moment in team sports; Swoopes was both the first African American and first woman to “come out” in major team sports. Rome, to his credit, did support her bravery in going public with her
sexuality. However, his appreciation was contained in a way that reinforced male privilege and the trivialization of women sports. This is what Rome said on his show on October 26, 2005:

Calling life in the closet “miserable,” three time Olympic gold medalist and reigning WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes announced to ESPN the magazine she’s gay. She said, “My reason for coming out isn’t to be some sort of hero. I’m just at a point where I’m tired of having to pretend to be somebody I’m not. I’m tired of having to hide my feelings about the person I care about. About the person I love. Male athletes of my caliber probably feel like they have a lot more to lose than gain by coming out. I don’t agree with that.” First of all, I applaud her decision. It couldn’t have been an easy one and it certainly was a courageous one. However, she’s way off base when she says male athletes of her caliber may think they have a lot more to lose but they don’t. Of course they do! A male athlete with her resume, three gold medals and a league MVP award, say, for instance, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Shaq, Kobe, K.G [Kevin Garnett], any of these guys, of course they have a lot more to lose. Sheryl, you’re in a fringe professional sports league and anything but a household name in this country. The guys have a lot more to lose because they have a lot more at stake. They play in a bigger league, bigger profile, bigger dollars, bigger backlash, bigger everything. I’m not looking to diminish this announcement in any way. I applaud your decision, Sheryl. It’s courageous, but you’re wrong to say your male equivalents don’t have more to lose because clearly they do.


Rome’s idea that male athletes have “more to lose” assumes a hegemonic, male perspective. Rome assumes that what is ultimately at stake is loss of sponsorships and money. This reinforces the corporate male idea that money is the definitive measure of success, an idea that marginalizes other potential negative consequences such as physical violence against women (particularly lesbians). Swoopes’s social location as a black lesbian places her at potentially greater risk than white male gay athletes due to the operation of racism and sexism. Hence, my textual analysis shows that The Jim Rome Show reinforces homophobia and male hegemony. However, a close reading of the show reveals some contradiction and gaps to this hegemony. The following transcripts of the program exemplify times when the show partially subverts normative masculinity and homophobia. The first example relates to an editorial letter in the May 2001 issue of Out magazine. In that issue, editor-in-chief Brendan Lemon stated that his boyfriend was a Major League baseball player. Lemon did not give names, but hinted that the player was from an East Coast franchise. Rome and other mainstream media programs reacted quickly to the editorial. A media firestorm resulted in a rumor mill: players, fans, owners, and sports talk radio hosts swapped guesses and anxieties over the athlete’s identity.

Gays in baseball

On May 18, 2001, Rome’s monologue pondered the questions: What would happen if that person’s identity became public? What would it mean for baseball, gays, and lesbians in sports in general, and for the man himself? Given that Lemon’s boyfriend would be the first athlete in one of the “big four” major-league team sports (baseball, football, basketball, and hockey) to come out during his career, what effect would this have on the institution of sport? Rome decided to pose this question to one of his interview subjects that day, well respected baseball veteran Eric Davis.

Rome: What would happen if a teammate of yours, or any baseball player, would come out of the closet and say, “I am gay”? What would the reaction be like? How badly would that go?
Eric: I think it would go real bad. I think people would jump to form an opinion because everybody has an opinion about gays already. But I think it would be a very difficult situation because with us showering with each other . . . being around each other as men. Now, you’re in the shower with a guy who’s gay . . . looking at you . . . maybe making a pass. That’s an uncomfortable situation. In society, they have never really accepted it. They want to come out. And if that’s the case, fine, but in sports, it would definitely raise some eyebrows . . . I don’t think it should be thrown at twenty-five guys saying, “Yeah, I am gay.”


[Rome changes the subject . . . there is no follow-up.]

Rome asks a pointed question of Davis, whose predictable homophobic response warrants more follow-up questions. Yet Rome shifts the subject to something less problematic, letting Davis off the hook.

After Rome ends the interview, he addresses Davis’s comments in another monologue:

That’s [Eric Davis] a seventeen-year respected major league ballplayer. And I think that’s a representative comment of a lot of these guys . . . He is a very highly regarded guy. This is why I asked him the question. And he answered it very honestly. He would be concerned about having a gay teammate . . . For instance, when he’s showering. Personally, I don’t agree with the take. It’s my personal opinion. However, I posed the question to see what the reaction would be. And this is what I have been saying since this story broke. This is why it would not be a good thing. This is why the editor of that magazine clearly was wrong and has never been in a lockerroom or clubhouse. That’s why it hasn’t happened. Eric Davis’s reaction is what you would expect. Not everybody would feel that way, but a large majority would. It would make it nearly impossible for a gay player to come out.


Here, Rome is aware of the difficulties that would occur for an openly gay ballplayer. However, he articulates his opinion in the safety of his “expert” monologue, not in the presence of Eric Davis. He does not risk compromising his masculinity or his relationship with Davis by endorsing this unusually progressive stance in the presence of a famous ballplayer like Davis. But, when a listener calls immediately after the Davis interview, Rome responds differently:

Joe: I never imagined my first take would be on gays, but I had to call. Being gay, it matters to no one but gays themselves. Why don’t you guys, girls, or gays . . . whatever you guys are. Just do us a favor, do yourselves a favor and keep it to yourselves. I mean . . . [Rome runs the caller with the buzzer and disconnects the call.]

Rome: I think that’s a very convenient response—“It’s an issue only because you make it an issue.” I don’t agree with that, frankly. It’s an issue because they are often persecuted against, harassed, assaulted, or killed in some cases. That’s why it is an issue. They are fired from jobs, ostracized. It’s not only an issue because they are making it an issue. What you are saying is keep your mouth shut, keep it in the closet; you are not accepting them for whom they are and what they are. It’s not an issue because they are making it an issue. It’s an issue because of people saying things like, “Keep your mouth shut . . . we don’t want you around . . . we don’t want to know you people exist.” That’s why it’s an issue, because of that treatment.


Again, Rome’s strong stance against homophobia demonstrates a fairly complex appreciation of the injustices of homophobia and heterosexism. This position is worth mentioning, particularly in the context of a program referred to as “the Jungle” with an audience of mostly men steeped in traditional masculinity and for whom heterosexuality is the unquestioned norm. Rome’s antihomophobic stance represents a fissure in hegemonic masculinity. It can potentially foster a new awareness in Rome’s listeners and invite new voices into this important conversation about masculinity and sexuality, potentially spurring a rethinking of masculinity and sports. Cutting off the first-time caller due to his homophobic comment could be viewed as a productive, accountable maneuver, which is notable since straight men do not have a rich history of holding other straight men responsible for homophobic slurs.

The historic May 18, 2001, radio show generated further substantive discussion on the issue of sports and heterosexual dominance in various media sites. This included a two-part show on Jim Rome’s Fox television show, The Last Word, titled “The Gay Athlete.” The show’s guests included two “out” athletes: Diana Nyad and Billy Bean. The show’s discussion was very rich, with the host asking fairly nuanced and enlightened questions. Since this show, Rome has interviewed other athletes who have “come out” after they left professional sports, including football players Esera Tuaolo and David Kopay. In these interviews, Rome asked perceptive questions about the prevalence of homophobia in male sports and applauds their courage in coming out. ESPN also addressed the same topic and conducted a poll that showed that a substantial number of sports fans would have no problem with a gay athlete (ESPN.com, May 31, 2001). What’s more, Advocate magazine published an article by cultural critic Toby Miller (2001a), who argued that the media firestorm generated by Brendan Lemon’s article could potentially create a moment “for unions and owners of the big four to issue a joint statement in support, to show that queers are a legitimate part of the big leagues” (p. 3).


Another significant moment occurred on the May 18, 2001, show when Rome read the “huge email of the day,” usually reserved for the nastiest comments. Rome chose an email from “Mike from San Gabriel,” who wrote:
Jim,
Eric Davis is perhaps the quintessential baseball player/human being who has overcome tremendous odds in battling and overcoming cancer and physical challenges. He’s faced and battled a disease that strikes fear into the heart, and understands that life must be taken a day at a time. Yet, despite this brush with death and the clarity in some areas that it brings, Eric’s reaction to your question regarding baseball players’ reactions to knowing that a teammate is gay spoke volumes, and none of it particularly heartening. Eric’s fear (speaking for the average baseball player, that is) that a gay player may be checking him out in the shower is representative of the stereotypes foisted upon homosexuals in our society, and in baseball in particular. I find it a little sad and ironic that an African American player would espouse a viewpoint -- fear, ignorance, and intolerance -- that for much of baseball’s history had kept some of the best players in history -- African Americans -- out of the Major Leagues.

Perhaps, though, baseball may play a progressive role in our society once again. Like it did in helping to erase the “color” barrier in the 1950s, so too it may be able to play a part in fostering tolerance and acceptance in society today. I think it’s going to take someone the stature of a Jackie Robinson from the gay community to help allay the fears of baseball players, and in turn our society, before progress can be made. Until then, gay baseball players will be relegated to a shadowy world of fear and intolerance once reserved for African Americans and other minorities. --Mike


Mike’s comments caught the attention of the editor of Outsports. com, Jim Buzinski, who commented that Mike’s email of the day was “well-written” and “gay-positive.” In the Web site article titled “Give the Media Good Marks: Coverage of Closeted Gay Baseball Player was Positive and Non-Judgmental,” Buzinski went on to write:

Lesbian basketball fans and gay Major League baseball players have been all the rage in the sports media the past two weeks. This alone is unprecedented. The mainstream media barely acknowledges the existence of gay athletes or fans. Having the issue raised in, among others, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Internet discussion boards and sports talk radio is all to the good. Even better is that, overall, the coverage was balanced, informative and nonhomophobic. (p. 1)


Later in the same article he refers to Jim Rome:

The tenor of talk radio (at least when I was listening) was not as Neanderthal as one might have expected. Jim Rome, the guy who called Jim Everett “Chris” a few years ago, has been very enlightened on the gay issue, saying it’s nobody’s business, while at the same time acknowledging the difficulties an “out” athlete might face. (p. 2) Rome’s stance against homophobia is groundbreaking and historic in sports talk radio.


Ultimately, however, the perspective articulated by “Mike” and supported by Rome once again confines the meaning of homophobia in sports to the intolerant or ignorant behavior of individuals, and locates the responsibility for changing that behavior in gay players or black athletes, who, after all, should “understand” about discrimination. Both Mike’s letter and Rome’s comments also innocently presume that African Americans have achieved equality in sports and in the larger society. This presumption, common in sports talk radio discourse, is informed by what Goldberg (1998) refers to as a “feel-good color blindness of sports talk hosts” (p. 221).4 Queer scholars have discussed how sexuality is often produced through the process of racialization (Gopinath, 1997; Munoz, 1999). By ignoring the intersection of race and sexuality, Rome saves sports from a more biting and thorough critique, one that would expose the deep, institutional sexism and racism in sports. Instead, Rome refocuses the audience on the simple metaphors of sports -- bad guy bigots and heroic gay athletes -- rather than the larger environment of sports and media that keeps white, heterosexual masculinity at its center, thereby systematically excluding and oppressing all “others,” including women, racial minorities, and gays.

Hence, there are contradictions in, and limitations to, Rome’s “progressive” stance on sexuality. His comments espouse a liberal viewpoint that regards homophobia as fearful behavior enacted by intolerant individuals. Take, for example, Rome’s careless dismissal of the caller who wants gays to stay in the closet. While the caller’s comments certainly reflect a homophobic viewpoint, Rome locates the blame in the caller as an individual, as if the caller is one of just a few, unenlightened bigots. A closer look at Rome’s own comments on the show, including homophobic references, jokes, and name calling, all point to the same fears that motivate the caller’s concern. Perhaps the caller’s comments are better understood as a reasonable (but repugnant) apprehension of gays and lesbians based on the widely shared perception that “out” gays and lesbians challenge heteronormativity and patriarchy. As Claudia Card (1995) points out, hatred and hostility toward homosexuals are not a pathological disorder of a few individuals. Rather, homophobia is a pervasive problem that is not isolated in its effects.

This perspective also assumes that the right, best way for gays and lesbians to live is “out.” Almost all parties in this dialogue refer to coming out, including Mike, Rome, Eric Davis, and the editor of Out magazine. As Gopinath (1997) observes, the “coming-out narrative” assumes that people who have a same-sex desire need to reveal their
sexuality and become visible and also presupposes a universal gay subject. “Coming out” is viewed by Rome as a contested privilege, a “right,” and the natural and logical next step in achieving “health” and an “authentic life.” This narrative is supported by many people and institutions, including the mental health industry, straight allies, and many people in the urban gay community.

The Jim Rome Show suggests that coming out signifies freedom and egalitarianism. While this stance can provide a very powerful option for persons who identify as gay or lesbian, “coming out” can also be another standard for sexual expression that people may feel obligated to meet. In addition, privileging the coming-out narrative can unwittingly work in the service of heterosexism. Coming out requires that a person claim an identity as gay or lesbian. Foucault (1980) suggests that claming a fixed identity as homosexual may be personally liberating, but unintentionally relocates heterosexuality in the privileged center. Because straights are not required to “come out” and claim a heterosexual identity, heterosexuality is assumed to be natural and normal. While Rome and his callers discuss homosexuality, heterosexuality is never interrogated or discussed and hence remains an unmarked and naturalized category.

It is important to note that Rome’s interviewing of “out” athletes such as Billy Bean and David Kopay is a unique outcome in the world of hyperheterosexual sports. To allow visibility of the gay athletes cannot be taken lightly in terms of its potential ramifications, particularly in the context (2004) of George W. Bush’s proposing a constitutional
amendment to ban gay marriage. Yet it is equally important to ask: Which athletes are allowed to become visible? What is their social location? How is their sexuality represented? Virtually all the gay athletes who have been on The Jim Rome Show are white males (an exception is Esera Tuaolo, who is Samoan) who define homosexuality as an essentialist identity. Social theorist Michel Foucault (1980) contends that while visibility opens up some new political possibilities, it is also “a trap” because it creates new forms of surveillance, discipline, and limits.

Sure, Bean and Kopay are given space to discuss their experiences as gay athletes, but it must be contained within a very limited, private discourse. Scholar Lisa Duggan (2002) claims that much of the recent visibility of gays and lesbians is framed within a post-Stonewall, homonormative ideology. According to Duggan, homonormativity is privatizing as much as heteronormativity and each lends support to the other. As much as Rome’s recognition of gays in sporting world is noteworthy, it is very much restricted within a homonormative frame that reproduces traditional gender ideas.

Hence, Rome’s show reinforces conservative gay and lesbian identity politics. Athletes, who perform a more unconventional, nonnormative sexuality, including women, are invisible in sports radio. Sexuality and sports was again the subject of discussion of Rome’s show on August 29, 2001. On that program, Rome was interviewing heavyweight boxers Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman about their upcoming title fight. During the interview, a war of words broke out because Rahman questioned Lewis’s heterosexuality. Lewis became quite perturbed, stating, “I am not gay! I’m 100 percent a woman’s man.” This verbal conflict continued later that day on an ESPN interview program. During the ESPN taping, a physical scuffle broke out between the two boxers as they pushed each other and rolled around on the ground. The following day, Rome discussed the incident and the subsequent brawl on ESPN on his program, focusing mainly on the question of whether the incident was staged to hype the fight. Rome argued that the harsh feelings between Rahman and Lewis were “genuine”; that the incident was not staged. Yet in focusing on the theatrics or authenticity of the scuffle, Rome failed to address the inappropriateness of Rahman’s homophobic slur.

The host did make an attempt, however, to address some of his callers’ heterosexist/homophobic comments in the wake of the incident. On the August 30, 2001, radio show, many clones called, noting that Lewis’s strong reaction to Rahman’s assertion proves that Lewis is gay. Hence, homophobic gossip questioning Lewis’s sexuality became the spotlight of the talk. In this next excerpt, Rome criticizes both Rahman’s allegations and the callers’ fixations with Lewis’s sexual orientation:

Personally, I don’t care. It’s nobody’s business what that guy [Lewis] does outside of the ring. It’s nobody’s business but Lennox’s. I don’t care. But apparently, he does. He says he is not. I don’t care whether he is or isn’t. I tell you what -- HE’S NOT GOING TO STAND FOR ANYBODY SAYING HE IS. He made that pretty clear. I don’t think Rahman should have said what he said. He should not have said, quote, “That was gay of you to go to court to get me to fight.” But, I tried to point out to Lennox that he’s not calling you a homosexual, he’s saying “it was gay to go to court.” Lennox didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t make the distinction. And yes, it is a little peculiar that he got that hot that quickly, but I don’t really care.


Here again, Rome takes up a “tolerant” position by asserting that sexual orientation should not matter and gossip about Lewis’s sexuality is improper. Yet, by stating that sexual orientation makes no difference to him, Rome is once again invoking a liberal argument that contradicts his previous intolerance of the same “don’t ask, don’t tell position” held by a caller. In addition, his comments mirror the “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” on gays in the military. Scholar Ladelle McWhorter (1999) critiques this personalized approach to homophobia:

When tolerant people insist that my homosexuality doesn’t matter to them, they say in effect that my homosexuality is not a social or cultural phenomenon at all but rather some sort of brute quality inherent in me and totally disconnected from them; they say in effect that my homosexuality is a kind of object that is obviously there but has nothing to do with me as a person. Thus, this “tolerance” in the final analysis amounts basically to the same stance as that taken by reductivistic homophobes. (p. 3)

To summarize: Given Rome’s prominence in the sports talk scene and the makeup of his audience, his generally progressive stance on gay athletes is significant and can be utilized as a key first step to transform heterosexism in sports. My intent is to recognize and respect Rome’s liberal posture on sexuality while illustrating the limitations of his viewpoint. As stated in this section, Rome’s stance is less than revolutionary. Obviously, I am not arguing that The Jim Rome Show should or will ever be a revolutionary space for alternative sexualities.

Since The Jim Rome Show is located within the highly mediated, commercialized world of sport, it is unrealistic to expect Rome to take a more queer (more radical) position on sexuality. However, my intent is to ask questions about Rome’s stance on homosexuality that have not been generally raised in the popular press. In addition, I am interested in exploring how dominant public ideas about sexuality prevent us from asking more radical questions in the first place. Also, I believe that The Jim Rome Show and other sports media texts offer opportunities to highlight how heterosexuality is naturalized. I have often used transcripts from Rome’s show to emphasize particular points on sexuality and to initiate a discussion on homophobia.

(From the book "Beer, Babes, and Balls: Masculinity and Sports Talk Radio," by David Nylund. Nylund is an associate professor of social work at California State University, Sacramento and a clinical supervisor at La Familia Counseling Services and the Sacramento Gay & Lesbian Center.)