LGBT issues have played a prominent role in sports news over the last few months, with Jason Collins, Brittney Griner, and Robbie Rogers all coming out. Their bravery has given everyone who covers and cares about progress on those issues in the sporting world a reason to celebrate. Lost in those stories, though, was one about Kerry Rhodes, a defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals who was “outed” by a former manager who claims to also be Rhodes’ former lover.
The story, in fact, wasn’t really “lost.” Instead, it was “purposely underreported,” according to ESPN’s LZ Granderson, because Rhodes denied it immediately and discomfort about the prospect of outing Rhodes without his consent prevented other outlets from reporting it out. That may seem appropriate — who, after all, wants to out someone? — but in reality, it may be a form of soft bigotry that keeps sports reporters from pursuing stories we’d consider fair game and relevant news if the athletes in question were straight, Granderson argued:
The unintended byproduct of respecting a player’s privacy is rendering him invisible, and that invisibility allows prejudice to fester. In the case of gay athletes, the unspoken truth provides cover for our latent homophobia in the mainstream media. While we don’t mind chasing down and reporting every detail of presumed heterosexual athletes’ lives, we work particularly hard to avoid rumors of homosexuality. What weighs heaviest on me about this code is that it inadvertently endorses shame. It grants permission for bigotry. And it perpetuates the assumption that gay male professional athletes are a rarity. The media — more to the point, I — haven’t shown the courage to delve into whether or not that is true.
It’s time the charade ends. It’s time the media start covering gay athletes’ off-field lives with the same intensity and integrity with which we cover straight athletes. [...]
We need to move forward as the celebration over Jason Collins’ coming out ebbs. We need to reach the point where we are as comfortable with showing a male athlete’s male partner in the stands as we are with showing Katherine Webb, the girlfriend of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. When reporting a profile, sports writers need to become willing to ask a male player if he has a girlfriend or boyfriend
Admittedly, I am thoroughly uncomfortable with the idea of outing a professional athlete, and so too is Granderson (“I still haven’t mustered the courage to report the whole truth,” he wrote in the piece). But placed in both the context of journalistic standards and the current media environment, in which athletes are public figures subject to human interest and scrutiny both on and off the job, Granderson’s point is worth considering. If a reporter knows an athlete is gay but doesn’t report it, is the reporter shielding information and distorting the truth? It seems fair to argue that’s the case.
It also isn’t just about outing someone or covering the salacious side of sports and sex. It’s also about the simple question, about giving the person the option to respond. What if our unwillingness to ask that question, to push athletes to be honest and to be honest ourselves, is reinforcing the close-mindedness of the sporting world? It may seem overly intrusive to walk up to Kerry Rhodes and ask, “Are you gay?” But if we did, and did so respectfully, could it also help demolish the idea that there’s something inherently abnormal about being a gay athlete? Perhaps the first athlete to get that question wouldn’t answer for fear that he’d be placed in a media spotlight he doesn’t want. Perhaps he would. Perhaps he’s Kwame Harris, an athlete who tried to let his teammates and coaches know he was gay, but found them unwilling to pursue the conversational openings he was giving them. Or maybe she is Brittney Griner, just waiting for someone to ask so she can say plainly, “Yes.”
Gossip is one thing. But what if our silence and discomfort is obscuring more serious issues too? It isn’t just Tiger Woods’ affairs and Tom Brady’s marriage that we cover when it comes to straight athletes. When Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and killed himself, reporters, including me, dug into every aspect of the story, from domestic violence to the abandonment of a three-month-old child. When Harris was outed after a domestic dispute with his former lover this year, though, the story was that a former NFL player was gay. The implications of the fact that he was abusing a former partner were barely discussed, as if they weren’t a real story. Could it be that our discomfort with addressing those issues is only making them worse?
Those of us who have written extensively about LGBT issues in sports have urged everyone from athletes to coaches to step out of their comfort zones in the interests of creating a more diverse sporting community for all. Is it time we took our own advice?