Was that Marlon Perkins disguised as Bob Ley hosting ESPN’s Outside the Lines last Wednesday? The hour-long special report, “The World of the Gay Athlete,” surveys the subject well enough— in that desperate way of a network trying to catch up with a story it should have been covering routinely (news flash: There’s homophobia in sports!). Yet the tone smacks of Wild Kingdom— as if introducing fans to an odd, exotic breed.
Maybe it’s the way Ley pronounces homosexual, separating the syllables with the staccato enunciation of scientists naming a tropical disease (or of Jesse Helms fulminating against artists). Or maybe the way reporter Kelly Neal presses a gay college swimmer— whose identity is concealed— on the specious old shower question, as if there were substance to straight guys’ anxiety about scrubbing down among queers.
Still, the episode plainly treats homophobia as a shameful problem in team sports at all levels, from high school— a heartbreaking profile of Greg Congdon, a senior in Troy, Pennsylvania, chronicles how he was drummed off the football and wrestling teams, and out of school altogether, by his teammates after he was outed— to the pros— NFL players say a gay guy would certainly take extra hits on the field and mega-agent Leigh Steinberg states that it’s easier to win endorsement contracts for a guy who’s come out of jail than for one who’s come out of the closet. “When you figure out a guy’s gay,” the Redskins’s Dana Stubblefield sums up guilelessly, “you just get a real ugh feeling being around him.”
There are sound bites from Greg Louganis, David Kopay, Dave Pallone, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Mike Muska, and fuller, charming interviews with two athletes who actually came out during their careers and were the happier for it: former ABL forward Boky Vidic and Australian rugby hunk Ian Roberts. The show ends with a bit of triumphant footage from the Gay Games. Maybe ESPN will even cover them next time.
Looking for that unique, last-second gift? Trying to find the item that no one else is buying this holiday season? Why not an Allen Iversonautographed picture or a Kevin Garnettsigned jersey? Modern-day NBA memorabilia should fit the bill perfectly— and nobody seems to want it.
“You don’t see anyone coming in and asking for Allan Houston or Patrick Ewing or Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal,” says Ron Schwartz, president of Future Sports and Memorabilia at Lexington and 55th. “Only Michael gets requests, and even his demand is down.
“People have reverted back to the ’50s and ’60s players,” he continues. “The call for Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, the Knicks championship teams, has remained constant.”
Schwartz, who has been in the memorabilia business for more than 10 years, recalls a similar backlash toward baseball after its strike in 1994. “There was a negative on the current players, but it never affected the older players,” Schwartz explains.
So the NBA’s hotshot generation is collecting dust in Schwartz’s shop— on a back corner wall. The autographed 8 x 10s of Grant Hill ($169), Allen Iverson ($149), Alonzo Mourning ($109), Chris Webber ($109), and Antoine Walker ($89) are as untouchable as the players have become. Typical of that attitude is Players Association president Patrick Ewing, conspicuously absent for a New Yorkbased store. According to Schwartz, Ewing doesn’t sign anything unless his agent or his shoe company tells him to.
“People lose touch because they don’t meet the players,” Schwartz says. “People are just turned off.”
contributors: Alisa Solomon, Jon Cooper, Howard Z. Unger, Joanna Cagan sports editor: Miles D. Seligman