First Published: Before August 2002
       This is an OutUK Archive Item and so some of the links and information may be out of date.


I bet you saw the footage (or the photos) of the Mike Tyson/Lennox Lewis brawl -- oops, I mean press conference -- a couple of weeks ago, writes Joan M. Garry. It was on the front page of many newspapers, and heavily bleeped video ran on tv news across the country. And sports commentators, of course, had a field day with it.

Not that this was really news. Mike Tyson biting someone and being generally loutish is pretty much a given whenever he appears in public. But there's another side of this incident you may not be as aware of.

After the brawl, Tyson hurled a series of epithets at a reporter who sensibly (if a bit too loudly) observed, "He should be in a straitjacket." "Come here and say that to my face, you faggot!" was just the beginning of Tyson's violent outburst, and what followed was a stream of slurs, threats and unprintable obscenities -- including the threat of rape toward the male reporter and repeated use of the word "faggot." Tyson has since offered an apology for the incident, saying he doesn't consider himself a "role model" and sees himself as "politically incorrect."
Yet in their focus on Tyson's brawl and its fallout (including the Nevada Athletic Commission's decision to deny him a boxing license), the sports media machine has carefully avoided examining the anti-gay content of Tyson's outburst. It was ignored by radio and tv in the UK and the US and even on CNN sports commentator Keith Olbermann quipped : "I'm just worried [by] reports that the only damage Mike was able to do is to leave a slight strawberry on Lewis' leg. I mean, that's a problem. Apparently Cousin Mike still has his jab but he's lost his bite."

Clever? Sure. But accurate reporting? Hardly. And Olbermann wasn't alone in downplaying the "other" part of Tyson's press conference performance.

Why don't sports writers want to run with this? Maybe they think reporting such epithets will offend people in gay community? (News flash: too late!) Maybe they've become so accustomed to casual homophobia in sport that it just washed right over them? Or maybe there's some unwritten rule where news that casts a too-revealing spotlight on the reality of sports industry culture simply goes unreported.

Sometimes journalists do break the mould and report on homophobia in sports, although generally it's in response to a controversy. Last May, there was a media frenzy in the US at the mere hint of an unnamed gay professional baseball player. In December, chaos erupted when "Sports Illustrated for Women" printed a piece about a new women's football league and one of its players came out. And the marketing challenges faced by the WNBA have been fodder for features on whether lesbians are a desirable part of a sports team's fan base. But why has no sports reporter in the UK written a story about the gay players in the current Premier League, surely there must be some. After all Footballers' Wives are the subject of a primetime ITV drama.


But these reports aren't enough to tell the whole story of homophobia in sports. Anti-gay and sexist put-downs are still the most common way for athletes to humiliate their opponents and even for coaches to "motivate" athletes. Tyson of course didn't break any new ground with his use of anti-gay slurs. Not surprisingly, it turns out that Tyson himself had been taunted in a similar manner before the press conference began by former boxer Mitchell Rose, a Lewis supporter. Rose had screamed, "[Tyson's] a homosexual, a faggot, and someone needs to do something about him."

Pretty vicious cycle, isn't it?

All this reminds me of the words of another gay-bashing celebrity: Eminem. He justified using the word "fag" by saying, "The most lowest degrading thing that you can say to a man when you're battling him is call him a faggot and try to take away his manhood... 'Faggot' to me doesn't necessarily mean gay people. 'Faggot' to me just means taking away your manhood." I don't doubt that Eminem's take on the word "faggot" ranks among its common, popular meanings (it certainly helps explain Tyson's use of rape threats against a male journalist who criticized him). But that doesn't make the word any less damaging.


Tacit acceptance of these attitudes, behaviours and words nurtures homophobia in secondary school changing rooms. And as we saw in the Tyson incident, homophobia isn't just targeted at gay people. When young athletes learn they can conflate being gay with being less than a "real" man or woman, they discover a powerful weapon for pummeling their peers into conformity (and, in the case of gay youth, shaming them into the closet). So when authority figures -- whether they're coaches or BBC sports reporters -- downplay this harassment ("boys will be boys," after all), young people learn that they can act out on homophobia with impunity. The results: an enforced, profession-wide closet in sports and public behaviour like that of Mike Tyson to reinforce it. And then the cycle begins anew.

Whether he or anyone else admits it, Mike Tyson's visibility translates into influence -- particularly on young people and athletes. The sports media's myopic fixation on Tyson's physical brawl and relative blindness to his homophobia send a disturbing message: that highly visible media figures (like Mike Tyson and tennis champion Goran Ivanisevic before him) who publicly use words like "faggot" will not be held accountable for their overt displays of bigotry.

The "boys will be boys" defense is a convenient excuse for those who would claim that Tyson's homophobic epithets are a non-issue, but the sports media that cover Tyson's every move owe us more than a collective wink and a shrug here. They have a responsibility to examine the sports culture that told Tyson it was OK to say those things in the first place.

Joan M. Garry is executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. She came to GLAAD following a seven-year tenure as vice president of business operations at US cable channel Showtime Networks where she managed the pay-per-view division and was responsible for the network's relationship with boxing promoter Don King Productions.


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