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Media Coverage Uneven

Reactions to Piazza Story Show Discomfort With Gay Issue

(This article was originally published in May 23, 2003)

Updated on May 30, 2003

Mike Piazza’s comments that he is a heterosexual, in response to a blind item in a gossip column, was just the tonic the sports media needed in an otherwise slow news week.

Homosexuality and sports has been a trendy topic the past year and it allows writers and columnists to write about something more ``serious’’ than Mike Tyson’s psychological state.

The coverage we’ve seen has been generally supportive of an athlete coming out, but contradictions abound, which reflects the fact that the subject is still uncomfortable for many in the mainstream. ``Please Don’t Tell and We Won’t Ask’’ is the operative phrase.

Some of the same media who don’t hesitate to pursue heterosexual angles in stories (what else are details about an athlete’s wife and kids?) become champions of privacy when the subject of an athlete being gay arises. And it certainly doesn’t help when many declare emphatically that it would be career suicide for an athlete to come out and could never possibly go well. How does anybody know to make such a blanket prediction? Times have changed and the fallout is impossible to ascertain; reactions from players, coaches and management show a range of views from total support to hostility and demonstrates that the success of anyone coming out all depends on who it is and how it is handled. But nuance is never a strong suit of writers and columnists, who prefer to deal in absolutes since it makes for better copy.

Here is a review of some of the coverage found in the print media. Sports radio and TV have also covered the issue, but hearing the subject debated is matter of tuning in at the right time.

A column I hated

``Valentine Is Dead Wrong,’’ by Wallace Matthews, posted on Sportsjournalists.com.

Matthews is in the news after being fired by the New York Post, which he accused of spiking his column on the Piazza issue. He posted it on Sportsjournalists.com, writing ``I always knew the paper had no integrity. Now we know it has no balls, either.’’

In his column, Matthews accuses Valentine of being dead wrong when he said baseball is ready for an openly gay player. He writes: ``And if the rest of society were ready, I wouldn't be writing this column right now.’’

Actually, in reading the column it should have read: ``If Wallace Matthews were ready, I wouldn’t be writing this column.’’ It’s Matthews that has the problem with gays, as he demonstrates later in the column.

``That is why the kind of `journalism’ perpetrated in Monday's Post is abhorrent. As are the McCarthy-like tactics of homosexual groups that deliberately out celebrities and athletes under the premise of exposing hypocrisy.’’

Excuse me? Which homosexual groups are you referring to? Outing has not been in vogue for 10 years (and even then was repudiated by virtually all gay groups), and I don’t know of a single athlete who ever has been exposed. Matthews sets up a straw man to try and spin himself as the champion of privacy rights.

He further buries himself when he calls the rumor in the Post ``scurrilous.’’ Sorry, scurrilous is calling someone a child molester or drug dealer, not pointing out that a baseball player might be gay. Matthews should stick to writing about boxers, who have the intellectual capacity he can relate to.

The Columnists Weigh In

l The Man Show, by John Powers, LA Weekly

This is a brilliant dissection of the media coverage that nailed it on the head. It's the single best piece I read on the issue. Wrote Powers:

''The people who kept insisting that America couldn't handle an openly gay ballplayer were the sports journalists, from the print-world panelists on ESPN's Sunday-morning The Sports Reporters to radio's King of Smack Jim Rome, who sounded afraid of alienating his wiseass audience. It's ironic. Commentators are forever grousing that today's athletes are shallower than they used to be -- why can't Michael Jordan be another Muhammad Ali, why isn't Barry Bonds as socially aware as Arthur Ashe? -- but listening to Rome prove more resistant to change than some of his callers, I found myself longing for the late Howard Cosell. ...

``Of course, one reason we don't hear such things is that most of our sportswriters, columnists and broadcasters are still as square as Grampa's checkerboard. It disturbs them that some of the heroes they celebrate may not fit our still-limited notions of masculinity. (Think of their tireless horror at the gender-bending antics of Dennis Rodman. And he was banging Madonna.) You can partly understand their unease. If professional athletes' straight-arrow masculinity is not inviolate, think what that might imply about journalists who devote their lives to watching well-built guys perform, hanging out in locker rooms and inhabiting a world that largely resembles an unironic version of The Man Show.''

l ``Sports Not OK With Gay Yet,’’ by John Smallwood, Philadelphia Daily News.

Smallwood’s piece, generally excellent, is typical of the ``society is not ready for gay athletes, though I wish it was’’ school of thought. Best line: ``Players already know they have gay teammates, and I'd venture to say many know who they are. But if something is not positively known, it doesn't have to be discussed publicly.’’

l ``There's No Need to Throw Any Coming-Out Parties,’’ by Diane Pucin, Los Angeles Times (Web site registration may be required).

One of the few who suggests that it would be possible for an athlete to come out. Her take:

``There almost certainly are gay baseball players, football players, hockey players and every other kind of player. The players don't much care about the sexuality of their teammates.

'`This is not the old days. Baseball players don't hang out together, go to dinner together every night, travel cross-country on trains together. They make so much money, have so many agents, trainers, tailors, hairstylists, dieticians and personal coaches around them that most have no real interest in the personal lives of the men who bat behind them or dress next to them. …

``There will be a large majority of men and women in this country who will judge other men and women only on what counts.

``With an athlete, that would be performance on the field. As long as an athlete's personal conduct is not illegal or does not compromise his performance, fans and teammates don't care.”

l ``Baseball Focuses on the Trivial,’’ by Harvey Araton, New York Times (Web site registration may be required).

Araton condemns the focus in baseball on Piazza and his sexuality, while ignoring more important stories such as steroid use and the looming work stoppage. His take:

``Irresponsible and unfair as the item in The New York Post was, I'm wondering what the Mets accomplished or were even thinking with their unfortunate overreaction. People who stoop low enough to make an uninformed issue out of a person's sexuality are not likely to be leading the next day with their target's denial. The better response, for the sake of discouraging such future musings, would have been: You don't have the right to ask unless I want you to know.

``Instead, we had Piazza, a gentleman, calmly stating, ‘I'm not gay,’ in addition to a variety of Mets voicing anger and disgust, including Vance Wilson, who chimed in with the gem, ‘He lives his life morally right.’

``Leads me to think, contrary to Valentine's interpretations of baseball's diversity, that the standard antigay expressions so prevalent in our macho sports culture are now merely spoken in a variety of languages.’’

l ``Superstar glamour boy says, "It ain't me, man,’’ by Jay Croft, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Online. One of the rare openly gay columnists writing about sports. His take:

``Bobby Valentine's no dummy about baseball. He's not known to be aggressively PC. And it's common for institutions to use the media like this before big announcements of all kinds. (It's how Rosie O'Donnell did it before coming out a few months ago, for instance.)

``So Piazza's not gay. But a good number of men in the Major Leagues undoubtedly are -- as are some involved with the Mets.

``It's entirely plausible that Valentine was checking things out for someone.

``It's also entirely speculative.’’

l ``The Gay Babe Ruth,’’ by King Kaufman, Salon.com.

Kaufman gets it right when he talks about the generational shift in baseball. His take:

``One thing it's easy to forget is that ballplayers get younger and younger every year. What I mean is, they were born later and later. There are players in the major leagues now who were in diapers when MTV was launched. They've lived their entire lives, at least the Americans among them, in a culture where gays are at least an acknowledged presence. These aren't the same guys who played in Glenn Burke's time a quarter century ago, most of whom probably would have said they'd never met a gay person.

``I predict the major leaguer who breaks the lavender barrier will be a pretty big star, someone who can be confident that his teammates will stick with him despite any misgivings they might have. As Phillies manager Larry Bowa pointed out Tuesday, ‘If he hits .340 it probably would be easier than if he hits .220.’ If Sammy Sosa says, ‘I'm queer,’ the Chicago Cubs suddenly become a very gay-friendly bunch.

“Still, it won't be easy. The first openly gay player will take some abuse from the opposition even if he doesn't take it from his teammates, and he'll probably take it from his teammates. Pioneers always have it rough.”

General News Coverage

In addition to commentary, the press wrote several news stories on the subject. Among them:

l ``Experts Endorse Piazza,’’ New York Daily News. A detailed look at how Piazza came to make his statement, with interesting comments from athletes and marketers. Of note: ``Even if Piazza said he was gay, sports consultant Dean Bonham doubts it would hurt him in the long run. ‘We live in an age and society that accepts the gay lifestyle,’ Bonham said. ‘Corporate America has been through all this already.’

``The locker room, of course, is a different story.

``Some of Piazza's teammates said they worried that the controversy would hurt his on-field performance and that fans in other cities would taunt him with anti-gay slurs. A fan in Arizona earlier this season waved a sign that linked Piazza with a New York TV personality.

``Some players were also confused about the national discussion on sports and sexuality, and wished it would just go away.’’

l `No Coming-Out at the Ballgame,’’ Newsday. The issue as seen from gay opinion makers, including Outsports’ Cyd Zeigler, who said: ``What happened was good," Zeigler said. "I think it's great that Mike Piazza is comfortable enough with himself that he can declare his heterosexuality."