Love All

Wimbledon's superstar proves that it's fine for an athlete to come out -- as a homophobe.

| Fri Aug. 3, 2001 2:00 AM EDT
When longshot Goran Ivanisevic took the Wimbledon trophy earlier this month, much was made of his fairy-tale route to the championship. Reuters called him "Goran Crusoe, the Beatles, and Cinderella all in one." What few in the media acknowledged during the celebration of the Croatian phoenix were the homophobic comments that followed his triumph over Australian Patrick Rafter.

In the post-match press conference, Ivanisevic vented frustration over several questionable calls, telling reporters, "Then I hit another second serve, huge. And that ball was on the line, was not even close. And that guy, he looks like a faggot little bit, you know. This hair all over him. He call it. I couldn't believe he did it." A handful of reporters laughed at the comment.

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Talk about a news hole: The remark was edited out of the streaming video of the interview available on the official Wimbledon Web site. Most mainstream media reports of the press conference (except for a column by the Los Angeles Times' Diane Pucin) also omitted the slur -- and that has some media-watchers worried.

It's remarkable that "an athlete can casually drop a word like 'faggot' in a high-profile media interview and not only is there very little media coverage of his comment, but several reporters in the room can be heard laughing at it," says Scott Seomin, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). In fact, Ivanisevic has used the word repeatedly in the past, with even less press coverage than the modicum his Wimbledon remarks attracted.

To be fair, Ivanisevic is hardly the only sports figure -- or even tennis player -- to have made homophobic remarks in high-profile situations recently. In January 1999, after the 19-year-old French sensation Amélie Mauresmo told reporters that she was in a lesbian relationship (she is the first active player to speak openly about her orientation since Martina Navratilova), the top-seeded Martina Hingis called her "half a man." Chances are, if you get your sporting news from mainstream US sources, you didn't know that.

What if it were a matter of racism -- which Richard Willams, father of tennis phenoms Venus and Serena, says is rampant in professional tennis -- rather than homophobia? "If Ivanisevic had used the 'N-word,' I doubt that press reaction would have been this muted," says GLAAD's Seomin.

True enough. In fact, the only prominent cases of sports heroes publicly vilified for antigay remarks have been those who also made racist comments -- most notably football star Reggie White and major-league baseball pitching ace John Rocker.

Homophobia in sports has deep roots for obvious reasons. Sports is about physical strength, a characteristic stereotypically associated with masculinity. You tear down a male competitor's reputation by suggesting that he is effeminate ("You throw like a girl") or berate a female athlete by implying that she is not not feminine enough. It's an ugly part of today's mental gamesmanship.

It has also stunted and ruined careers. Washington Redskin Ray McDonald was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for having sex with another man in a public park in the late 1960s, and lost his job and his career. Billie Jean King was dumped by her sponsors, including Nike, when she came out in 1981. When rumors circulated that Olympian Greg Louganis was gay, endorsements dried up; he suspected that sponsors feared being associated with homosexuality.

Fortunately, a few have fared better. Pro golfer Muffin Spencer-Devlin came out amid much controversy about lesbians on the LPGA tour, but her sponsors -- Calloway and MetRX -- stood by her until she retired. Martina Navratilova suffered a dearth of big endorsement deals until several years into her retirement, when the major corporations realized how loved she was by the public despite (or because of?) her sexuality; now she is the public face of Subaru and can boast a host of other lucrative endorsement contracts.

But if things have gotten better for celebrities, athletes in the trenches still struggle with the fears their peers faced 30 years ago. In a 1994 NCAA study, 49 percent of female athletes and 51 percent of female coaches surveyed said they felt homophobia hampered efforts to attract and retain women in athletic careers. And media coverage isn't helping: Unsubstantiated rumors about athletes' sexual orientation make tabloid headlines, while evidence of athletes' bigotry is buried or ignored.

(For more information, check out the Women's Sports Foundation's "Homophobia in Women's Sports," and the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.)

 

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