BLEEPED OUT OF THE STORY
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
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.
HOMOPHOBIA AS A TRAINING STRATEGY
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.
ACCEPTANCE AND INFLUENCE
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.