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Give the Media Good Marks

Coverage of Sparks and closeted gay baseball player was positive and non-judgmental

(This story was published in 2001).

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 non-homophobic.

First up were the women. The Los Angeles Times (in the interests of full disclosure, the place where I work but not in sports) broke the story of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks and their direct marketing to lesbians.

The original story ran on a Friday and by that afternoon something unthinkable was happening on sports talk radio in Los Angeles: Two heterosexual male hosts on the local ESPN radio affiliate, Doug Krikorian and Joe McDonnell, were discussing women's pro basketball. In May. With the Lakers and Kings still alive in the playoffs. Perhaps more remarkable was their hour-long discussion with callers that was largely positive and supportive and minus snide asides this issue would have elicited five or 10 years ago. A ``live and let live'' attitude prevailed.

Times sports columnist Diane Pucin wrote a terrific piece two days later after her visit to a lesbian bar that hosted some Sparks players.

``They brought pennants, notebooks and basketballs to be signed by players from the Sparks,'' Pucin wrote. ``They grabbed free key chains and some signed up for season-ticket packages, which was the point. No women's sports team has ever partnered with a lesbian organization to attract fans. But Friday night the Sparks came to The Factory in West Hollywood to ask lesbians for support.

Good for the Sparks.''

The only sour note was a rather juvenile attempt at sarcasm by the Times' T.J. Simers. Among his lines was: ``All I know is if this ticket-selling drive works for the Sparks, I'd think Disney would want to do the same thing for the Mighty Ducks. Then you could have, "The Gayest Place on Earth" right down the road from "The Happiest Place on Earth."

Simers, who is known for being deliberately provocative, missed in this attempt and seemed hopelessly out of date. Fox commentator Keith Olbermann ridiculously demanded in a letter to the MediaNews Web site that Simers be fired for his remarks. (In an unrelated case of irony, it was Olbermann who was canned/or resigned from Fox a few days later.)

The Sparks' story had a brief run (including a fine Harvey Araton piece in the New York Times) and was only the appetizer for an even bigger homosexual dish for the media: The column in the May issue of Out Magazine, where editor-in-chief Brendan Lemonwrote about his affair with an unnamed major league player (``from a major-league East Coast franchise, not his team's biggest star but a very recognizable media figure all the same") and his desire to have the athlete come out.

The magazine hit the newsstands in late April and was immediately Topic A on the Outsports.com discussion board, generating more comment than other issue during the past year. The story, however, remained under the radar and may have died a quiet death if not for MediaNews.

Jim Romenesko's Web site, the de facto discussion board of the media, posted a link to Lemon's column and immediately catapulted the issue to national attention. I've counted stories about the column in the New York Post, Newsday, New York Daily News, Hartford Courant, Providence Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle.

It was widely discussed on ESPN.com's message board and that of the New York Press (most of the comments were of those trying to guess the player's identity). At one point last week all three Los Angeles sports talk radio stations were talking about the issue simultaneously. The traffic to Outsports reached an all-time high after our reporting on the subject was linked from MediaNews.

Much of the coverage was straightforward, with comments from Lemon and, in many cases, from Billy Bean, a former major leaguer who is now openly gay. Bean was highly critical of what Lemon wrote, as were letter writers on MediaNews, contributors to discussion boards and talk radio. The editor was taken to task for appearing insensitive and self-serving (look at me, I'm dating a ballplayer).

In reading Lemon's column it strongly appeared as if the player did not know it was going to be published. The editor also struck an off note by writing: ``At some level, I am writing about this relationship because I want the ballplayer to come out and make my life easier'' His life easier? How about the player's?

Lemon has since gone into full damage-control mode. He has stated that the ballplayer was fully aware the column was going to be published and was highly supportive. And he seemed to back off a little in wanting the jock to come out.

``Let's be realistic, he'd have to worry about someone taking a shot at him - - literally taking a shot at him," Lemon told Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle. "I still am amazed, I think it's a miracle, that Jackie Robinson wasn't shot by some lunatic."

Unfortunately, Lemon is never called on this rather absurd claim. Can he name any athlete (outside of those in the movies) who has been shot at during a game by a deranged fan? While it might be tough for a gay male professional athlete of a team sport to come out, it's hard to imagine assault with a deadly weapon being a legitimate fear.

The tenor on talk radio (at least when I was listening) was not as Neanderthal as one might have expected. Jim Rome (left), 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. He gave his ``huge e-mail of the day'' May 18, usually reserved for the snarkiest of comments, to ``Mike from San Gabriel,'' who wrote:

``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 1950's, 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's'' well-written e-mail was representative of much of the coverage: gay-positive but despairing of the perceived reactions to an athlete coming out. Arthur Martrone, sports editor of the Providence Journal, was notable (along with Johnette Howard of Newsday) for saying what needed to be said: It would be good for society for an athlete to come out.

``No matter how anyone feels, personally, about homosexuality, it's time to stop the pretense that sports is a gay-free zone,'' Martrone wrote. ``Our athletic arenas, so noble in so many ways, are -- sadly -- a place where age-old prejudices and stereotypes still exist . . . below the surface, perhaps, but there nonetheless. It's time to kick them out. …

``(Lemon's) friend, in fact, may become a Jackie Robinson or a Curt Flood: Someone whose suffering smoothes the road for those that follow.

``But I think he would smooth the road, especially if he's as good a player as Lemon hints. He would show that homosexuals can play a sport, and play it well, and the republic won't crumble. And if certain segments of society -- segments currently inclined to be judgmental regarding sexual preference -- can begin to accept gays on our fields and courts and ice surfaces, they may begin to accept them in the workplaces and supermarkets and shopping malls, as well.

``We can hope, anyway.''

(Outsports co-founder Jim Buzinski was sports editor of the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram from 1987-98 and out the entire time.)