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Out at ESPN

Gay and Proud at the Worldwide Leader In Sports

(This story was published in 2002).

By: Bill Konigsberg

I spent the last night of my ESPN career at a bar in Plainville, Conn., drinking beers with my soon-to-be ex co-workers. It was a bittersweet experience.

On the one hand, I was sad to be leaving a place that had come to be like a second home to me. It was as if a part of my identity was being stripped from me, and I wondered how I would feel the next morning, when I was no longer an ESPN employee.

Not to mention very hung over.

On the other hand, it was a time for celebration. I was moving on to an exciting opportunity, as a writer at the Associated Press in Hartford. More importantly, I had accomplished a goal that had eluded me for so long; I had found a way to be Bill, the sports guy, and Bill, the homosexual, simultaneously.

It was a night for laughter. Early on, my buddies Woj, Rico, and Wayne set about to teach me how to talk like a straight guy:

"Fuckin' A!" I repeated, mimicking Rico's inflection. "Nice rack."

"What else?" Woj asked?

"Um, hold on a sec…" I responded. Focusing on the waitress, I scrunched up my face like it was hard for me to say. "Nice pooper?"

A roar of laughter enveloped our side of the table. Wayne wasn't buying my innocence on the subject.

"Oh right, like he's never thought that before."

At which point a geyser of beer came spewing from my nostrils.

Mature? Not quite. But what was so great about this evening is that it left me knowing for certain what I had suspected all along: I might be different, but whether or not I was gay didn't matter. Here I was living it up with my sports buddies, and I was one of the guys.

How did I get there? Not sure, really. Many people come out in far more conducive environments than ESPN, with far worse results. Somehow, it turned out great in this instance.

March 1999

It was my first month at ESPN and I was constantly anxious. Not only was I trying to live a double life, but I was trying to do it while working in studio production as one of the guys who creates the highlight packages for `` SportsCenter.'' This was not the most sophisticated group of people I was working with. Mostly just out of college and male (there were about eight women out of more than 100 employees), these guys constantly threw the word "fag" around the screening room, and everything that was lame, or bad, was called "gay." It was not the best place for me.

I mostly stayed to myself and got the reputation for being a hard-working, quiet type. Ironic, since I'm more of a hedonistic loudmouth, but that's another story.

Cracks were forming in the façade. One day in the screening room we were talking about Jewish ballplayers. Steve Sax was named, as was Shawn Green. Now I've had many a speculative conversation about ballplayers before, but rarely has it been about their religious orientation.

"Gabe Kapler is gay," I said.

It just slipped out. I'd meant to say, "Gabe Kapler is Jewish" but who says such things?

A couple of people looked at me quizzically.

"…and Jewish," I finished, softly.

June 2000

I was now working in studio research, which meant I was one of the 10 guys who created the `` Did You Know?'' and `` Inside The Numbers'' segments. I was much more comfortable with my surroundings by now, had plenty of friends, but I still wasn't open about being gay. My pal Todd was becoming a problem, because he always wanted to talk about girls. I'd put him off for nearly a year, and he was getting fed up.

"What are you, gay?" he'd say, a sneer on his face. Honestly I don't understand why this was such an outlandish possibility, but to him I guess it was. Finally, to get him off my back, I changed the gender of my boyfriend, Richard. He became Rachel in a few conversations. I felt slimy, but I hoped it would get him to stop pestering me. It did.

However, a couple of things around that time pissed me off. First, in a meeting for the late SportsCenter broadcast one day, the LPGA came up. Trey Wingo, an anchor, started in on "the Lesbian problem" in the LPGA, and how it was getting out of hand. Apparently he was at an LPGA tournament one day when some woman was wearing a shirt that said "Yes I am!" and as he told us about her at the meeting, he said "Yes we know!"

Someone asked him if there was "a Gay problem" in the PGA, at which he commented, "Of course not!"

Trey is a good guy, but I sensed he was a problem for me. When I'd work with him directly on a show, he had a tendency to say things to me like, "I love you Koni," "You are so sexy," that type of thing. He was joking, but it bothered me because it hit a little close to home, and I wasn't sure if he was doing it because he thought I was gay, or he thought I couldn't possibly be gay. I still don't know.

In a show later that week, Kenny Mayne did an auto racing highlight and at the end when the pit crew was celebrating, hugging each other, he said in that dry tone of his: "The pit crew. They're gay."

I understood it was a double entrendre, but something bugged me about the comment. What made it funny, of course, was the impossibility that a pit crew could be comprised of gay people. And I was getting sick of hearing that.

I set up a meeting with the head of studio production to voice my concerns. I came out to him and told him that his department was a walking lawsuit. The word faggot was being thrown around with regularity, not to mention inappropriate comments on the air.

His answer was to set up sensitivity training. To me, nothing is more of a joke than sensitivity training, but I let it go. I began looking for work on the Internet side, and was hired there in August.

May 2001

I'd found a good home at ESPN.com. The people there were more sophisticated I found, and I could see myself having a life there. I told two friends about me and they were supportive , and I was even playing softball in the companies' day and night leagues (a perk of working at ESPN is that it's considered normal to play softball at 11 a.m. on a weekday on a regular basis).

On May 22, I read Brendan Lemon's article in Out magazine about his baseball-playing boyfriend, and it struck a chord with me. Have you ever had a moment in your life when everything turns on its head? In my mind, my life was fine but I knew I could never mention my sexuality or my sports career would be history. In a split second, that all changed. What would happen if I just refused to lie anymore? Not that I was openly lying, but by not divulging an important truth, it felt that way.

I decided to see what would happen if I put myself out there in my truest form. The worst, I realized, would be that I'd find myself looking for work elsewhere. I decided to test my inner strength.

I wrote a column about what it was like to be gay in the world of sports. I wrote it lightning quick, in about 10 minutes, and took it into the office of one of the senior editors.

I said to him: "You're about to think I'm crazy. But I want you to read this." And I walked out. I came back 10 minutes later, and he said, unflinching, "I think we shouldn't change a thing."

That was the beginning of two days of craziness. There were phone calls to the head of the department, lots of closed door conversations, calls to public relations. I was asked, over and over, if I wanted to put myself through this.

"I'm ready," I said.

This all sounds so silly to me now. I was an assistant editor, not a million-dollar athlete. But I kept on hearing that it was something that would break new ground. Bring it on, I thought.

It was set to hit the front page of the site, in conjunction with a package on gays in sports that they'd built, at noon. The final conversation I had was with the department head, who sat me down that morning and told me to expect hate mail, hate calls, and possibly physical violence.

I told him all I expected was their total support, and he said I had it.

My two best friends took me to lunch, knowing that when we came back it would all be different.

Over 100 e-mails awaited me when I returned. To my surprise and delight, every single one of them was positive. I'm not kidding.

The first one I read was from my buddy Woj:

"Great article Koni, that took some balls," it said. "Now on to important stuff: Are you gonna trade me Larry Walker or what?"

Another classic, from Andy, who sat a few cubicles away:

"Nice ruse to get on the front page."

I went over to him and we shared a laugh, and I told him that I'd been trying to get on the front page for a long, long time. Management had turned down my "I'm tall" angle, I told him.

Many were from co-workers registering their surprise and offering me congratulations and support. Some friends told me they had never known anyone who was gay before. I reminded them, gently, that they had.

Surprise of surprises, I got a note from SportsCenter anchor Bob Ley. A staunch Republican, I'd certainly not expected much from him. Especially since he had never been too friendly to me when we'd worked together. One of my first days there, I was reading a notice on a door leading to the newsroom, and he came up behind me and yelled "Well? Are you gonna open the door or what?" He wrote me an e-mail congratulating me and praising my column as "the most eloquent he'd seen on the subject." He and I spoke several times after that, and I will always respect him for his supportive reaction.

One memorable note came from someone within the company that I didn't know. I was surprised he sent it, since I then had his name. It said something like, "Your article really meant something to me. I've been having trouble with my wife, and this put things in perspective for me."

I assume he was telling me he was gay and about to tell his wife. I reached out to him with a reply but never heard back. Alas, he's probably just one of the incredible number of married gay guys in Connecticut. It's truly amazing the number of married men here looking for other men.

HARDLY AN ISSUE

Curiously absent: Hate mail, hate calls, violence. Did I get looks in the cafeteria? Absolutely. But in my entire time at ESPN, including out on the softball field where anything goes, I never heard directly from anyone a negative word.

In the following weeks, a funny dichotomy formed. At ESPN.com it was hardly an issue, and it was business as usual. If anything, people seemed to feel closer to me. On the production side, however (both are located in the same complex in Bristol, Conn.), it was another story. Possibly because I was less outgoing for much of my time in production, possibly because television is a less "enlightened" place than is an internet site, possibly because this particular group has existed since 1979 without a single out gay person in their midst, it was tense.

One day I was in the television newsroom, and Wingo came up to me. I was on edge, feeling very much as if everyone were peering at me (probably because they were). People who had always come up to me and said hello were suddenly not doing that.

Trey walked up to me put his hand on my shoulder. "Koni! Great article buddy. That took some serious balls.''

"Thanks man," I said.

"You know, one of my best friends is gay. He's great. We play golf all the time," he said.

"How nice for both of you," I thought. I'm mostly kidding. Really I was grateful that he had come up to me and said what he did. That's the kind of guy he is, though. Even though he said some things that upset me at one time, I'll remember Trey as very good hearted and warm.

From that point on, I was much, much happier at work, much more comfortable. I became the designated homo, meaning any gay political or watchdog group with an axe to grind came to me with their stories. That was a mixed blessing. It was nice to be able to help, but I hated feeling obliged to take an activist stance, since I'm hardly an activist. I took it on the chin and did my best to help people when I could.

The memorable moments are too many to list. Actually, I went weeks at a time without my sexuality coming up at work, which was fine with me. I was pleased however that I could make off-handed comments from time to time, and heartened to know that my friends weren't enjoying Bill The Shadow Person, but Bill The Real Person. That made me very happy.

The final memory, other than the going-away party I mentioned earlier, was a pre-going away party a few nights before. About 10 of us were having dinner, and we were trying to organize what kind of pizzas to order. One was called the "Wooster St. King."

"Will you eat the king?" the wife of a friend asked me, earnestly.

There's nothing like a good belly laugh with friends.

And yes, of course I would.

Bill Konigsberg is a former editor at ESPN.com and now writes for the Associated Press.