Out of the Closet and Into the Cleats

It wasn't until a couple of years after she had played in the Women's Professional Basketball League in the late '70s, Mariah Burton Nelson told the crowd at a forum on gays and lesbians in sports last week, that she came up with an answer for the dumb questions male sports journalists were constantly asking: "Isn't there a contradiction between being female and playing basketball? Isn't there a conflict?" What Nelson wishes she had said was, "Yes, you're right. Every so often when I'm dribbling down the court, the ball bounces up and gets caught in my vagina."

It was certainly the biggest laugh line of an evening that was by turns touching (newly out-of-the-closet former Major Leaguer Billy Bean offering, "If this community embraces me and asks me to do things on their behalf, I'd be very proud to do so"), contentious (swimmer and broadcaster Diana Nyad asserting, "I take great offense to the Gay Games" because they suggest that gay athletes can't compete at the highest levels), and melancholy (former NFL running back Dave Kopay saying he might have saved wide receiver Jerry Smith's life if he had outed him, thereby sparing him a shameful retreat into drugs and unsafe anonymous sex; Smith died of AIDS in 1986).

But Nelson's quip did more than offer some comic relief for the panel, titled "Breaking the Silence" and sponsored by The New York Times (a sign of some progress, said moderator and Times columnist Robert Lipsyte, noting that the paper of record had refused to review Kopay's 1975 book about his travails, and even killed a column on it by Dave Anderson). Nelson's joke made room for some critical analysis in a discussion that was otherwise a moving, but limited, account of how pro sports forces gay athletes to lock themselves in the closet. It was Nelson who named the connection between homophobia and misogyny. (Bean noted that in the clubhouse, cheating on one's wife or even beating her up was regarded as a healthy sign of masculinity.) And it was Nelson who put the issue into political context, remarking that the culture of women's athletics has become more homophobic as it has acquired corporate sponsors. Finally, it was she who pointed out that the very reason straight women could find a place in sports nowadays was that lesbians spent decades paving the way, ignoring men who chided that their athletic prowess called their very female-ness into question.

All agreed that though women athletes are becoming more and more closeted— witness the WNBA— male players are forced into even deeper hiding. Women, typically, can be out to their teammates even if they don't run into the arms of their girlfriends after a game. But according to Bean, a guy would have to be so great a player— he'd have to have "a 15-year contract for $20 million a year, he'd have to be that safe"— to declare his homosexuality and stay in the game. Such safety is not, of course, currently available to women. There's also the question of why the closet is slammed tighter for athletes of color. Hardly a reflection of their proportional representation in pro sports, all the panelists were white.


Turf's Up

If "God's playing sometimes," as Jets coach Bill Parcells said after losing Vinny Testaverde to a ruptured Achilles tendon Sunday, then He hates artificial turf. According to a survey conducted by the NFL Players Association last year, 86.6 percent of NFL players prefer grass to plastic, and 94.2 percent say the carpet is more likely to lead to injuries. Indeed, though Parcells answered "I don't know" when asked if he thought the surface at Giants Stadium caused his QB's season-ending injury, he may be the only one left on God's green turf who's unsure.

"There is unquestionably an increase in ligamentous injuries on artificial turf," says Dr. Willibald Nagler, the chief of rehabilitation medicine at Cornell's Weill Medical College. Four years ago Nagler conducted an analysis of 25 scientific journals, and found that football injuries on turf are up to 50 percent more frequent than on grass. The reason, says Nagler, is pretty simple: the increased friction between turf and the football shoe. "When you play tennis on a soft court, you can slide into the stroke. Grass allows you to slide too, a tiny bit, but it suffices. Turf doesn't have the same give." And ligaments aren't elastic, says Nagler. "Something has to give, and the first thing in line is the toes, then the ankle, then the medial collateral ligament."

Former Jet Clark Gaines, who now heads the players' union safety committee, says that "with the advances in agronomy today, there's no reason any game should be played on turf." No reason connected to safety, at least. The Giants Stadium surface was ranked fourth worst in the NFL by players last year, and though just two weeks ago fellow Swamp rats the Jints and the MetroStars announced their satisfaction with the grass field experiments of the past two summers, Parcells and other Jets honchos seem unswayed. Going au naturel, after all, would cost each team $1 million up front, then $400K a year to maintain. An expensive lawn, but considering the injuries to Testaverde, RB Leon Johnson, and WR Wayne Chrebet, the money question is: how much has plastic cost the Jets?

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