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Kordell Stewart’s story is why we’ve avoided spreading gay athlete rumors

Outsports has received gay rumors about athletes for years. Though that trend is declining.

Steelers Kordell Stewart
Kordell Stewart took the Pittsburgh Steelers to two AFC Championship games as a quarterback and played in the Super Bowl as a utility player rushing the ball and catching passes.

Kordell Stewart was one of the very first athletes we ever wrote about at Outsports.

It was less than a month after we launched the site that Stewart publicly addressed rumors that he was gay, and that he had talked about it with his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates.

It left a dilemma for Jim Buzinski and me. How do we handle “rumors” that so-and-so athlete is gay?

The story we ran in late 1999 was straight news. Who, what, when, where. It came from Jim’s instincts as a longtime newsroom veteran: If we stick to what’s publicly known, we’re not advancing rumors, we’re reporting the news.

Plus, even in those early days of Outsports, neither of us wanted the site to devolve in rumor-mongering. We knew that two gay guys writing about sports was already going to bring with it some raised eyebrows and doubt. While Jim had been out as a sports editor, gay guys writing sports were few and far between. It just wasn’t done.

Compounding all of that was the immediate rush of “rumors” we were receiving from readers within weeks of launching the site. We started Outsports — in those very early days — simply as a place for gay men to come talk sports. It was revolutionary, and so many of our early readers found it fun and exciting to talk about their sports crushes along the way.

Most of the “rumors” we heard we largely classified as speculation and wishful thinking. It was almost always the most handsome, fit guys in sports who made up the “Hey I heard this quarterback sleeps with guys” emails we would get with little more to go on than “He’s just too handsome to be straight.”

Wishful thinking.

Yet some of the “rumors” we heard were detailed accounts of sex and other interactions with NFL players and other professional and Olympic athletes. One in particular stands out as both memorable and likely, because of the source and the details of the story.

Beyond not sharing these seemingly credible rumors on Outsports, Jim and I have both largely avoided even sharing them verbally with other people.

Kordell Stewart’s Players Tribune piece last week, detailing the personal and professional issues created by having “gay” rumors out there, explains why.

To be sure, being gay is not a bad thing. Calling someone gay is not defamatory, whether they are or not.

Yet no one benefits from these rumors.

Not the player. Not his team. Not his fans. And certainly not the gay community. All these rumors create is mistrust and bad blood. Not good.

Like I said, we have addressed a handful of gay-athlete rumors in the past, almost each time using the rumors to explain why they are problematic.

When Aaron Rodgers talked about the swirling rumor that he was dating his male assistant, just weeks before Michael Sam came out publicly, we used the opportunity to explain that yes, sports are accepting, but no, it’s not helpful to spread rumors.

As speculation mounted in 2012, my piece — Is Tim Tebow gay? — described the torment someone like Tebow could be going through.

“If Tebow is gay,” I wrote, “he is buried beneath so much crap he many never get out from under it. Instead of attacking him for it, maybe reaching out a helpful hand would be nice.”

The one athlete we’ve handled slightly differently — Troy Aikman — we’ve done so in part because he’s actually made problematic comments about being gay, saying it’s “a lifestyle people choose.” Our piece about Troy Aikman choosing to not have a boyfriend is Outsports’ most-read story ever.

While I can understand the frustration of someone like Aikman, who’s been dogged by these rumors for years, I can also disapprove of how he’s handled it.

Yet for his part, Stewart couldn’t have hit a better tone with his Players Tribune piece. Thoughtful, raw, honest, and openly accepting of the LGBTQ community.

“I got nothing but love for everybody, no matter what their sexual orientation is,” Stewart wrote. “It’s great to see how much the world has evolved in the last 20 years.”

Yes, it is. And one of the ways our community has evolved is that these rumors and speculation have subsided. I just don’t get the questions or speculation about pro athletes the way I used to. That’s an evolution I’m happy to see.