(UPDATED TWICE) Months ago, a CBC Fifth Estate producer contacted me for a documentary on gays in sports. It is another evergreen story topic that’s complete bullshit, like how to organize your Oscar party or what to do for Valentine’s Day.

It’s bullshit because the story has been written, and rewritten, and re-rewritten dozens of times since the 1980s. I should know: I did a lot of that writing and rewriting. The overt angle is easy to state: Why aren’t there any (or why aren’t there more) openly gay athletes?

The implicit angle completely knocks the knees out from under the story, Tonya Harding–style, but journos are the last to realize they are plumbing a desiccated vein. When a journalist asks about gays in sport, they’re really asking:

  • About men. Nobody cares about all the dykes in sport, who are, incidentally, absolutely everywhere at every level. We expect sportswomen to be manly and unfeminine – which might as well be outright lesbianism as far as people are concerned, so when they actually are dykes nobody is surprised. Really, it’s as simple as that; read Mariah Burton Nelson’s numerous interchangeable books on the subject.

  • About pro sports. In fact, the discussion is all about American pro sports. Not even Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, or anyone in the British Isles particularly cares about gay footballers and ruggers. (The world did not change after Fashanu and Roberts came out; only Thomas’s coming out made any difference, and that is attributable to evolution of the culture, as we will see with Avery and Alfredsson.) All those countries have at their disposal are the sports pages in tabloids and a few marginal TV networks.

    Sports media are an American phenomenon, manifested in a set of empires dominated by SI and ESPN. All they really care about are football, baseball, and basketball. Maybe you could stretch it to hockey, but not really. Any kind of Olympic or amateur sport just isn’t on the radar. Canadian sports media (also concentrated in a few hands) follows this model, with the variation that we are told hockey is more important than the other pro sports whether it is or not.

    Hence when we talk about coverage of gays in sports, we are talking about gays in sports covered by oligopoly sports media. A gay cricketer is of no value whatsoever in this narrative.

  • When the press conference is. Journalists are not asking why there aren’t more gays in sports. They’re asking why there haven’t been more press conferences at which an athlete admits or confesses or declares he’s gay, ideally from a scripted statement at a table set up in a hotel conference room rented for the hour.

    (UPDATE, 2015.08.12) Poor Greg Louganis did exactly this, as the 2015 documentary Back on Board showed:

    Greg Louganis at press conference: “I’m gay and I’m HIV positive”

    Journalists want a news hook for everything. They appreciate punctuality and are all too happy to show up for an appointment, especially if everything wraps up well before 3:00 so TV crews and hacks can file before deadline. Journalists demand a discrete event to which they can peg a dramatic declaration.

  • When they can publish what they already know. Sports journos are like crime writers in that they cherish and hoard every morsel of exclusive information. In my direct experience, the more left-wing and alternative the journalist is (apotheosis: Laura Robinson), the more carefully they husband each morsel.

    A lot of hacks know who’s gay and would be all too happy to publish it. Now, this impulse works at odds with the liberal straight male’s impulse to set up one roadblock after another in reporting on gay public figures, but when an athlete comes out it provides a juicy I-told-you-so moment. It gives a hack a golden opportunity to tell everybody he knew all along.

  • When Troy Aikman’s gonna come out. What I mean is: The story that journos hope will finally snag them the Pulitzer is that of a gorgeous fair-haired NFL quarterback coming out. Troy Aikman isn’t culturally gay but is of course homosexual, and his hastily-arranged cover marriage is finally kaput. Aikman would have been ideal, but any beneficiary of the NFL’s stacking policy would do fine. The fairer a quarterback’s whiskers, the more everybody would love to see the guy come out.

    If you think this couldn’t possibly be true, well, did you give a shit when Esera Tuaolo came out? A gay Pacific Islander in pro football isn’t what people signed up for, is it? Now, he did it post-facto, but that’s a minor component of the story.

    Of course the whole thing is racist. But football is racist, and anyway, there’s so much sublimated sexual attraction tied up in this whole discussion that we have to face facts. What people – what other gay males – really want in their midst is the handsomest general of the gridiron. No black guys, no second-string players, no marginal positions like cornerback, and surely nobody from some weird ethnic group. Again: What journalist want in this context is what gay males want – a marriageable Aryan quarterback coming out at a press conference.

Being out does not require a sworn affidavit

On The Fifth Estate, Mark Tewksbury described an NHL player who backed out of a big public announcement at the last minute. It’s backing out that was the problem, Tewksbury and The Fifth Estate implied, not the fact that everybody demanded a public spectacle from a guy who just wants to live a life. For any pro athlete considering coming out, the last people he’d want to talk to are old journalists and first-wave out athletes. It’s like inviting missionaries into your house. You might as well sign up for Scientology.

To this day, straight people think being gay is so unusual and abnormal that, in high-stress environments like news reporting, they maintain an ever-growing list of documentary evidence nobody will accept even if you offer it to them. Yes, they demand proof you’re really gay in one form after another, then once you give it to them they demand even more proof, but the result is always the same: They insist being gay is “private” and they’re keeping you in the closet for your own good. Straight people, who invented the closet and are the only ones who need it, think the closet is where good things happen.

There’s a stubborn, homophobic insistence that the downtrodden, deviant homosexual confess his secret to you the heterosexual superior. (This is again like missionaries or religion or “getting saved.”) If we’re talking about gays in sports, you have to do that in public. Straight people will decide what “public” means and what constitutes an adequate confession. Straight people do all the deciding. Your Facebook photos on that gay cruise will be deemed private, for example, as will the fact that you are constantly spotted in restaurants with the same man and never with a woman. Even if they see you kissing a guy they’ll look the other way.

The whole point of gay liberation was to make it possible to live a life that wasn’t centred around being gay. That means living a life that isn’t centred around hiding being gay or shame at being gay. Straight people have no idea what it really means to be openly gay because they certainly aren’t. What they also aren’t doing is noticing all the openly gay people who surround them. Because we’re just living our lives. Without hiding anything.

And that’s what gay athletes are doing. Perhaps there are a few classic closet cases who lie and manufacture fake girlfriends back home or whatever, but seriously, these are teams made up of guys in their 20s. Are we really expecting a problem? (Sean Avery doesn’t. Neither does the captain you’d immediately expect to be out in front of this issue, hyperrational ginger Daniel Alfredsson.)

Athletes may be somewhat immature and assholish, but they’ve lived their entire lives in a gay-friendly culture – save, of course, for the Mormons or the evangelicals, but even they watch the same TV shows and it all sinks in. Nobody’s surprised anymore. Gay is not shocking. Those umpteen articles and TV segments over the decades have instructed us to expect gay players.

Not everything is about words

Tewksbury: “I know for a fact there’s many gay hockey players – and that the teams that they play on know they’re gay.” Then we don’t have a problem! Only Tewky and his journo enablers have a problem.

Journalists want everything expressed in words. Even TV crews need a soundbite. There’s an almost autistic insistence that speech and language and words are the only reliable way to communicate, the only thing that can be fact-checked, the only reportable statements – so much so that journalists discount every other form of communication.

Like unspoken knowledge shared by teammates; like lingering glances; like private conversations between guys on the road; like sexual experiences players share. You can’t shakily read any of those off a printout at a press conference.

When everybody on the team knows you’re gay, you’re out. (It worked for Jordan Knight.) You don’t owe journalists a press conference.

(UPDATE, 2011.09.26)Will Leitch in New York independently arrived at the same conclusion.

Gay journalists are the worst

I know this because I worked that beat for many years. We’re all old, and we certainly lived through the closet. We’re bookish and even more word-obsessed than straight journos. We don’t know our bodies the way athletes do. We cover sport and we may know its rules, but we don’t really understand athletes – who, like dancers, think with their bodies. We have no idea what that’s like. (We compensate by coming back again and again to the most articulate players, of whom there are always a few on any team. All that means is they have multiple intelligences. It doesn’t mean we do.)

We are as scarred as everyone else of our generation. We grew up isolated and atomized and were starved for affection, particularly affection from boys. We cannot separate touching from sexuality. We can’t even process how tactile and physical athletes are with each other. It just boggles our minds. We can’t believe they do it in a nonsexual way because we don’t have a nonsexual way.

This, then, explains why Outsports – always behind the curve, always fighting the first Iraq war – just can’t understand what’s happening when out rugger Gareth Thomas has his arm around rugger pinup Nick Youngquest (no relation). When neither of them is wearing a shirt.

Shirtless, tattooed Gareth Thomas has arm around shoulder of shirtless, tattooed Nick Youngquest

(Then Ben Cohen and Hudson Taylor did the same thing, but at least they kept their shirts on.)

The gay male enjoys sports for the same reason the straight male does: For the athletes. It is the additional ways we enjoy athletes that make us nervous, especially when we’re pretending to be objective sportswriters. Athletes enjoy being around each other. We enjoy that in a different way. As a group, we’re much too damaged to relate to the physical, rambunctious, space-hogging ways in which teammates manhandle each other, unless we’re Roger Brigham.

Now, I have some ideas about where this trend is going, but it will take a while before I will be in a position to publish them.

Lapse in journalistic ethics

To add insult to injury, The Fifth Estate engaged in an unexpected bit of journalistic dishonesty, the kind that straight people think is actually the epitome of honesty. The show hired an actor to respeak the words of a guy still in the NHL who played on a Stanely Cup–winning team. In the ’90s, the CBC Radio show Inside Track did the same with two allegedly closeted athletes, one of whom turned out to be the late Mark Leduc. (I was on that show.)

Straight reporters will do anything to keep us in the closet, including setting up elaborate distraction mechanisms to avoid their obligation to quote a source on the record.

As a topic for journalists, “gays in sports” is over.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2011.03.04 14:58. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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