by Dan Woog
So many gay sports stories, so little time. What’s a queer sports columnist to do?
The news in early February seemed like a flood, but a better analogy was a foxtrot: one step forward, one sideways, one back.
There was the announcement by former National Basketball Association player John Amaechi that he is gay. While hardly stop-the-presses information – Amaechi, never confused with Shaquille O’Neal, was a journeyman on several teams – his self-outing was significant on several fronts.
One was that he became the first NBA player to admit that “man-to-man” means more than defense. Another is that he joins a small, but growing, fraternity of male professional major-sport athletes who have come out: football players Dave Kopay, Roy Simmons, and Esera Tuaolo; and baseball players Glenn Burke and Billy Bean. Granted, all are retired – and all but Burke were household names only in their own households – but at least now there are enough out pro male athletes to field a basketball squad.
Amaechi’s announcement is important, too, because most Americans reacted with a collective ho-hum. A few years ago, the news that an NBA player – even a no-name like Amaechi – is gay would have made headlines. Sports radio talk-show hosts would have choked on their mikes. Players, coaches, and owners would have felt compelled to announce that the NBA remains a manly league, filled with manly men, and the only baskets they’d stuff would be mounted on poles.
Instead, the world rotated with nary a wobble. As league commissioner David Stern said: “We have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always, ‘Have you got game?’ That’s it, end of inquiry.” Call that one step forward for gay sports.
A second basketball story centered around Penn State University’s women’s basketball coach Rene Portland, who for several years has been engaged in “she said, she said” allegations with player Jennifer Harris, culminating in a lawsuit. Harris – who says she is not a lesbian – charged that Portland alleged she was gay, and harassed her for it.
Former players added their own tales of Portland’s bias. A six-month internal investigation found the coach had indeed created a “hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment.” She was fined $10,000. Now, all parties have reached an agreement, settling the case once and for all.
Because terms are confidential, no one knows if Portland must attend diversity training, write “I will be nice to lesbians” 100 times, or lead the Dykes on Bikes contingent in the next Happy Valley Pride Parade. But this much is known: Rene Portland remains Penn State’s women’s basketball coach. That’s one step sideways.
The third item – the one step backward – is the most intriguing. “Gay athlete comes out” is now old news; so is “female coach makes life tough for lesbians.” But when a queer controversy erupts during the Super Bowl – well, as Willy Loman’s wife Linda said, “attention must be paid.”
The story began with Snickers acting like any other purveyor of sugar-infused goo trying to gain attention in a crowded marketplace. The company created a commercial featuring two automobile mechanics, more “Deliverance” or NASCAR than NFL, who for some unexplained reason share one Snickers bar – literally. Devouring the tasty treat, their mouths meet in the middle. They are so captivated by the caramel concoction that their lips actually – are you sitting down? – meet.
Being manly men, of course, they freak out. Here, Super Bowl advertising fans, is where the fun begins.
After explaining what has happened – “We kissed!” – the men seek four different solutions to their horrific mistake. In one, they prove their manliness by ripping out their chest hair. In another, they demonstrate their machismo by guzzling motor oil. In a third, another mechanic randomly appears and wonders where this “Love Boat” is headed. In the fourth scenario, our two smoochers take wrenches and other car-mechanic implements to each other, bashing their gayness away. And, one assumes, giving license to anyone watching to do the same to anyone who might in any way be thought to be maybe, possibly, the teensiest bit gay.
But wait! There’s more! Snickers posted all four versions on a special website, then added video clips of various Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears watching the ads on laptops. Their reactions – disgust, revulsion, horror, morbid fascination, even financial concern (“I hope they got paid lots of money to do that”) – were, to many viewers, far more offensive than the sight of two men inadvertently touching lips over the hood of a car.
A predictable wave of protests led Snickers to withdraw the video a couple of days later. The advertising agency laid all the blame on “the client,” and Snickers offered up the predictable “humor is very subjective” apology. But the incident underscored the still unsteady status of gay men in society, particularly in the arena of sports.
And Snickers – having gained the publicity it sought amid the cacophonous clutter of Super Bowl ads – is probably snickering all the way to the bank.