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Double Standard Still Rules

(This story was published in 2002).

A baseball player in New York calls a press conference to declare his heterosexuality and the story fires up the sports world. A female pro basketball player in New York tells a magazine she's a lesbian and the public yawns.

The reactions to Mike Piazza and Sue Wicks confirm that there's a double standard when reporting on the sexuality of male and female athletes. The media--and by extension the public--seems much more fascinated with the identity of gay male athletes.

The reactions point out the stereotypes that both gay male and lesbian athletes still confront as they struggle for acceptance. Although a bit simplistic, the biases boil down to this: Many female jocks are presumed lesbian unless otherwise proven; male jocks are presumed straight unless there is a public declaration to the contrary.

Wicks, a player on the New York Liberty of the WNBA, came out publicly in an interview with Time Out New York. When asked if she was a lesbian, Wicks said: ``"I am. Usually I don't like to answer those kinds of questions, because you worry the issue might become so much bigger than the sport. As an athlete, it's a little annoying when that becomes the point of interest. But I would never avoid that question, especially in New York. I think it's important that if you are gay, you should not be afraid to say who you are."

The reaction? There was none. In a database search on Dow Jones Interactive of 6,000 top publications I could find one reference to Wicks' statement, by Judy Van Handel (herself out) in a WNBA notes column in the Boston Globe.

Contrast this with the outpouring of interest in Piazza's statement that he wasn't gay. We at Outsports did at least 25 interviews with print and broadcast reporters, including seven appearances on various sports talk shows across the country. In addition, virtually every major media outlet weighed in on the subject, interviewing players, ex-players, management and fans.

Outsports can plead equally guilty. While we mentioned and applauded Wicks' coming out and have assigned a writer to profile her, we did relatively little compared to Piazza. Even our active reader Discussion Board has been virtually silent regarding Wicks.

Part of it was the intense media focus on Piazza, combined with discussions of press ethics for how it unfolded (in a New York Post gossip column). Part was also that Sue Wicks is not a household name and plays in a league that gets little exposure. But part is also that we also bought into the notion that an out lesbian pro athlete simply isn't as big a story as the possibility a male pro will one day come out.

For starters, there have been active lesbians playing pro sports. Martina Navratilova is the most famous, but the list also includes this year's Wimbledon semifinalist Amelie Mauresmo; Carol Blazejowski, a former player who is the general manager of Wicks' New York Liberty, is also out. In contrast, there is no out male athlete on any pro sports team or on the pro tennis or golf tours.

Reinforcing Stereotypes

Gay men and lesbians are each hurt by the stereotypes. While it is widely presumed that there are many lesbians in pro basketball, golf and tennis, the hierarchy of each is still publicly and relentlessly heterosexual.

Anna Kournikova, she of the zero tournament wins, is featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated for her suggestions of foreplay and not her forehand. She makes it OK for men to watch women's tennis. In contrast, the out Mauresmo is dogged by unproven claims of steroid use, which would imply she is somehow less than feminine for being muscular. It's a claim I haven't seen hurled at the equally muscular but presumably heterosexual Williams sisters.

At the collegiate level, straight female coaches tout their marriages and children to prospective recruits and their parents, sending the message that they are not ``one of them.'' Even the WNBA, whose crowds are heavily lesbian, has a spotty record of reaching out to its fan base. The Liberty's refusal to hold a gay night (something done with other franchises) prompted a group called Lesbians for Liberty to give up trying this year, according to the New York Blade. If a team with a lesbian general manager and openly lesbian player in very gay New York City is resistant, it shows how much progress still remains.

The situation means that lesbians, even if present in large numbers in sport, still have an incentive to hide or downplay their sexual orientation.

The need for Piazza to call a press conference to declare his heterosexuality (even though he was not named in the gossip item) aptly sums up the situation for gay men in sports. Even rumors are seen as career- and especially endorsement-threatening. The closet rules, and the mainstream can hold on to the last bastion of hypermasculine heterosexuality in society.

Until barriers in sports are broken down and people can be honest about who they are, expect these stereotypes to persist. And expect the double standard to apply.