(This story was published in 2003).

Related: Keith Olbermann responds to this column (see bottom of page)

Judging by the reaction to a gossip item about Sandy Koufax, one would have thought the New York Post had accused him of helping Saddam Hussein build weapons of mass destruction. Or of having become a San Francisco Giants fan.

The Post’s actual crime? Insinuating Koufax was gay. The reaction of many in the media shows that this charge is still considered heinous and shameful in the sports world.

Koufax, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, broke his 48-year connection to the team two months after the New York ran this note in its Page Six gossip column: “Which Hall of Fame baseball hero cooperated with a best-selling biography only because the author promised to keep it secret that he is gay? The author kept her word, but big mouths at the publishing house can’t keep from flapping.”

It was easy to put two and two together and come up with Koufax, the subject of Jane Leavy’s biography, “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy.” The Post and the Dodgers are owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and Koufax decided to sever his ties because “it does not make sense for me to promote any” of the company’s businesses. The Post on Friday apologized for “getting the story wrong.” The issue quickly became a major story in an otherwise dreary sports month.

“Every once in a while News Corp. will do something so rapacious, so pathetic, that one has to stand up and say no more, to call for legal and moral measures to stop it, even if all gestures prove futile,” thundered Keith Olbermann on Salon. Olbermann said he would return a book advance from one of News Corp. publishing arms, saying “It might let Rupert Murdoch and his employees buy their souls back.”

On sports talk radio, Southern California-based Lee Hamilton accused the Post of “character assassination.” A Newsday columnist said the Post had “reached a journalistic low,” a point echoed in other columns and over the airwaves over the weekend.

The New York Post is the dictionary definition of “journalistic low,” a right-wing tabloid that trades heavily in gossip, so it won’t be defended by me. And Leavy, a respected author, had every right to be pissed; the Post had insulted her standards of journalistic ethics by saying a deal had been cut. She was correct to say “it was blatantly unfair, scandalous and contemptible. It was thoroughly without basis in so far as it had to do with Sandy or any relationship I had with him professionally. It’s not the kind of journalism I practice.”

But Leavy’s is the only position I fully support. Koufax’s decision regarding the Dodgers seems like an overreaction. What’s so bad about having been alleged to be gay? He never explained in his statements issued this week. If he is a heterosexual, one would hope that he’d be comfortable enough to laugh it off (“Me, gay? Yeah, right, just ask my ex-wives and current girlfriend!”) If he is in fact a homosexual, then his reaction is that of a 67-year-old man who has lived in the closet his whole life. He has my pity and sympathy.

What really bugs me, though, are the ones like Olbermann, Hamilton and their ilk rushing to defend Koufax’s honor. They never explained why this insinuation was so damaging to Koufax. It’s as if being called gay is a scurrilous charge on its face. This is patently ridiculous when applied to a private man who’s been out of the limelight for 30 years.

Attitudes Aren’t Unique

Their attitudes aren’t unique and reflect a strain of sports journalism that says being called gay is the worst one can say about an athlete. We saw this last year during the tizzy over whether Mike Piazza was gay (he came out as 100% hetero). Piazza’s tolerant “not that there’s anything wrong with that” attitude was refreshing and enlightening, in contrast to many in the media, who assured us that a gay player was signing his death warrant by coming out.

John Powers, writing in LA Weekly, offered as good an analysis as any as to the sports media’s discomfort with homosexuality. “Columnists and broadcasters are still as square as Grampa’s checkerboard,” Powers wrote during the Piazza flap. “It disturbs them that some of the heroes they celebrate may not fit our still-limited notions of masculinity. 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.’ “ Powers’ thesis holds true when discussing Koufax, a revered athlete of mythic proportions to many in the media.

It took a non-journalist to utter the most forward-thinking remarks I’ve seen recently about accepting gays in sports. The speaker was, of all people, former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine.

“I think most clubhouses could handle [gay ballplayers],” Valentine said on “Donahue” in December. “They’re mature people who understand all the situations we live with in our society and this is obviously one of them. … It’s just time to catch up and I think it can be done seamlessly if it’s the right person or people. … We’re in 2002. Let’s get rid of the whispers and let’s be real about this. … There will be some distractions and we’ll have to get through with them.”

The media still have a long way to go on this issue when a baseball manager is the guy making the most sense. Somebody get that guy a column.

I received this from Keith Olbermann in response to my column and thought readers deserved to hear his views:

Actually, sir, I did explain what was wrong with News Corp’s treatment of Koufax:

a) it profited from him working for the Dodgers, because it owns the Dodgers.

b) it profited from the book written about him, because it owns the publishing house.

c) it profited from reporting the rumor of passive-aggressive blackmail, because it owns the newspaper that printed the rumor; and, if the rumor is true:

d) it profited by cooperating with its own author, who’s a blackmailer.

As to the content of the rumor, while obviously in this homophobic world it’s going to get more play because the topic is sexual orientation, my anger would have been the same if the “accusation” was that Koufax was really a man named O’Reilly who’d just been “passing” for Jewish all these years, or that he was only faking being a left-hander.

This all appeared in my essays on the story for ABC Radio and MSNBC. They were not included in the Salon piece because that was patched together against a very short deadline, mostly by editors, and would not reach the volume of audience of either the radio or TV pieces.

The wrong act here is not constraining freedom of choice in sex — it was the poisoning of privacy, and fairness.

And my decision to return my book advance was made to free myself of any conflict of interest in criticizing News Corp, and to protest the shabby treatment of another author (and that author’s subject) by what had been my publisher.

I’d appreciate it if you’d correct the impression on your Web site that I was reacting to some perceived slight against straights mistaken for gays (or vice versa). The journalistic and ethical issues involved are much bigger than that.

Thank you.

Keith Olbermann