Sunday, May 12, 2013

Between the Lines: Covering (and Uncovering) Sports

Things really seem to be progressing. Take, for example, the responses to Jason Collins, the first openly gay male athlete in a major professional sport.

(We like the "first ever..." narrative so much we seem quick to forget about women athletes such as Martina Navratilova, who came out over 20 years ago or even male athletes such as boxer Orlando Cruz or the professional lacrosse player Andrew Goldstein since they did not compete in the so-called "big four sports"). Collins received enthusiastic support from almost everyone. He even got a call from the President thanking him for his bravery. High-fives all around. But, to what extent does Collins' brave articulation of his identity really represent progress? The answer may be found in those very high fives.

Consider the case of Glenn Burke, the man who invented the high five: an article on "the origins of the high five." The article itself is fascinating, particularly in light of our consideration of stories and storytelling. Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Dodgers and later the A's invented the phenomenon, but the behind-the-scenes stories are where the real action lies here.

You see, Burke was a gay man at a time when no professional athlete in "major sports" had ever come out. That Burke -- and presumably many other gay athletes -- had to keep his orientation secret in 1978 may come as no surprise. After all, many gay professional athletes still think they must keep their identities secret for fear of hateful reactions from teammates and fans and the loss of advertising revenue. (Think of recent ex-pro athletes Tualo Esera in the NFL, Billy Bean in the MLB, and Jon Amaechi in the NBA, who came out when their careers were over).

So, do you see Jason Collins' announcement a cause for celebration or an opportunity to lament the pain of earlier -- and current -- athletes who could not come out? Some, including Josh Levin at Slate  have even seen a new form of homophobia in the responses to Jason Collins' announcement.  Levin cites a chorus of people who aggressively shout "I don't care" or "This means nothing" as a means of shutting down the coverage altogether.

How are the storylines of sports are being managed today? Whose stories are privileged? Whose stories are silenced? Are the lines drawn differently for men and women? For athletes of different races, classes? Do we see in the case of Jason Collins and others reasons to be optimistic for the future of sports?


Lily Stein said...

I think that in the case of Jason Collins we should see reason to be optimistic for the future. We have come a long way from when people, like Glenn Burke, were too afraid of coming out and thus kept it a secret. Our society is taking small steps to hopefully becoming a place where being gay isn't news. People like Jason Collins are paving the way for younger athletes to not feel ashamed of their sexual orientation.
In addition, we must remember that in the era of Navratilova and the others mentioned, there was not instantaneous social media that could make an issue widespread (and front and center) in a matter of seconds. Though there are negative and positive effects of today's social media, it is definitely playing a role in making people more aware of the issues surrounding sexual orientation among all athletes.

Rachel Hoying said...

While I do agree with Lily that our society has definitely progressed in terms of our openness to gay people, I think that the media only is willing to share certain people's stories. It seems that the media only shares stories of people being gay of already very popular and well liked figures, like Jason Collins. It is very easy for most Americans to support Collins, if they already liked him and men's basketball before. On the other hand, people might not be as vocal in their support to a female athlete, or an athlete who participates in a sport that isn't as popular.

Maybe supporting already popular gay people might be the first step in becoming more accepting to all gay people, but for the time being many people have to stay silent. If a person isn't confident enough in the unwavering support of their fans or their friends and family, they might not be able to come out as easily. Hopefully though, popular figures coming out is a step in the right direction for greater acceptance for all people of all sexual orientations.

Aj Watkins said...

I agree with Rachel in that some stories are privileged over others. In fact, her example of women coming out and not being recognized is supported. Britney Greiner, one of the most talented women's basketball players in a while AND top WNBA draft pick came out as lesbian. But where was the media coverage? On major news sites such as CNN, there were articles about Collins coming out but NOT about Greiner. So I think that the more well known you are, the more coverage you get.

However, I do agree with Lily that the acceptance of Collins is a step forward in acceptance. I do, however, think that it would be harder to come out as a player in the NFL than the NBA, given recent backlash that many pro football players have already communicated. But I think that the more often people come out, the easier it will get.

Hannah DePorter said...

I personally think that the media should not focus so much attention on people coming out whether they be athletes, T.V. personalities, actors etc.. because the more the media makes a big deal of it, the further from the norm it is.

To explain this further, just imagine if Collins were to say, "guess what everybody I am straight!" Nobody would think twice because that is what is considered "normal" in our society. When the media makes a big deal out of something it steers further and further away from what "normal" is because they want their audience to stay interested in what they are watching. Lets say being "straight" is like simple addition. If you had to do simple addition everyday in math, you would get bored and uninterested. If being "gay" is like limits, not a lot of people know how to do them, so they will be more engaged in learning and continue to stay interested. Which would the media rather cover? the simple math problem everyone has seen a million times, or calculus that people are more unaware of?

I think that for true acceptance of people being gay and coming out, it can't be considered a big deal in the media and just become part of society like simple addition.

Lily Schroeder said...

I feel that it is not so much social media as it is broadcast media in the case of Jason Collins coming out as gay. It seems like I hear something everyday on NPR about sexualities and gayness; it’s the hot topic as Hannah mentioned previously because it is not the norm. It will become the norm when there is not news about it.

In regards to Martina Navratilova, the broadcast media would not even talk about being gay because it was considered “taboo.” This shows that being openly gay is more accepted by the broadcast media.

Male athletes are generally more popular than female athletes, so they will always be getting more media coverage. I think this is why we hear more about the ones we watch; lets face it, we are not all watching the WNBA.

Jeremy Noskin said...

While I do agree with AJ and Lily that there has been progress towards the acceptance of gays in sports, there is plenty of work to be done. While Collins is getting significant support and attention from the media, it is important to point out that he is currently not on an NBA team. I believe that this made it easier for him to come out because he did not face the pressure of his teammates' reactions.

I also think it is relevant that Collins is not what NBA fans would call a "good" player. In his career he averaged 3.6 points per game and started a little more than half of his games. The point I'm trying to make is that I feel that real progress cannot be made until an impactful player comes out as gay. So yes progress has been made by a player who is currently unemployed and has not had an illustrious career, but I wonder how people would react if someone like Lebron James or Kevin Durant came out as gay. Would there be a big jump in support of gays?

Heidi Blumenthal said...

I really like Jeremy's comment acknowledging that we have made progress, but it is not really progress until a star comes out as gay. One other point that I want to touch on is race. In most circumstances I would say that race has a factor in the media coverage, and public's reaction. However, I feel that sports create an equal playing field for athletes. And if anything minorities seem to dominate sports. In 2011 the NBA was composed of 83% non-white players. I think sports is an abnormality, but I don't think a white man like Andrew Goldstein is viewed any differently than the Puerto Rican Orlando Cruz or black Jason Collins.

Andrew Gjertsen said...

Jeremy, I couldn't agree any more with your thought of a renown athlete coming out. To be honest, I hadn't heard of Jason Collins before this recent media attention. I blogged about this topic soon after he announced his sexual orientation (, saying how I think the widespread success of current "big four" sports coming out as gay while active will be fan response during games. If fans are accepting of a major athlete, I know others will feel safe to come out. If, god forbid, the athlete were to be greeted with hostility, the success would be practically non-existent.

Zach Peltz said...
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Olivia James said...

I agree strongly with Hannah D. When this announcement first came out, I was very impressed with this man and I felt so happy for him that he found the strength to be true to himself, regardless of the negative influence it may have on his career. It was so nice how all sorts of different media outlets and TV shows were congratulating him and showing him so much support.
However, as I started thinking about how huge this story was becoming, I realized that in a way, this event is an indicator for the lack of success we are making in the acceptance of gay people. If we want this country to start viewing being gay as equal to being straight, then we shouldn't blow something like this up into a deal this huge. The message that I hear from all this media coverage is that being gay is not the norm at all, because it is such a cause for celebration. It seems almost alienating the way the media is portraying this event.
In a perfect world, Jason Collins wouldn't even have to come out to the public. He would just be himself without having to "break the news" to anyone who wasn't in his life. It wouldn't be a secret but it wouldn't be on display, because the fact the he is gay simply wouldn't change things one way or the other. That would demonstrate being gay as perfectly equalized to being straight. Even though all the positive reactions to his announcements are compassionate, to me this huge media response shows how far we have to come before we truly disregard sexual orientation as an indicator of equality.

Anonymous said...

The story of Jason Collins is very similar to that of the first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk. When Collins came out as gay, many people supported him, but some were offended. The same was true for Milk, many were against his campaign, but he ignored the opposition.

The interesting thing is that Harvey Milk was not initially a politician. He decided to run for office in order to get others to pay attention to his voice, he said: “Politics is theater. It doesn't matter if you win. You make a statement. You say, ‘I'm here, pay attention to me.’” Milk's story was privileged after he became a politician. This is just like Collins again, as his story was privileged as a professional athlete.

I believe these stories are privileged, because politicians and professional athletes are already in the media. The stories that are silenced are the generally the ones of people that wouldn't have a lot of media attention in the first place. Women's sports, and other men's sports are not that popular, so the media does not cover the stories of these athletes. While media coverage heightens over certain players when something happens, the coverage was already surrounding them: like the cameras in the NBA and cameras in the government.

Sarah Henzlik said...

I agree with Jeremy's point as well. I think that the people that have the largest voice that can reach the largest audience will end up being an agent of change for the end of homophobia in our popular culture. I think the stories of the players (almost entirely male)at the professional and college levels of the 'big 4' sports receive the most privilege in the media. Two of the 'Big 4' sports, basketball and football, have a large number of African Americans who play on the teams. These players often receive more media attention because of the sport they play, because I don't think they would as just an average, everyday citizen who is a minority in America. This is also true for players who come from humble beginnings. These people literally go from rags to receiving millions of dollars in signing bonus', salaries and endorsement after going pro. The rich almost always get the most media attention.

I think Collins' actions will encourage others to be more forthcoming about their orientations because they will realize they are not alone. Hopefully, people all over the world will recognize the importance of accepting people of different backgrounds, just as they have included the high five into everyday life.

alex wolkoff said...

While I agree with Olivia's point in that all the media coverage of Jason Collins clearly illustrates that being gay is not considered the "norm" in American society, I, however disagree with the fact that there should not be media coverage for stories along these issues. Collins's willingness to share his story demonstrates his comfortability with being gay. His decision will help ease other players, and American citizens, to continue expressing their homosexuality.
Again, as this is only one story, and the story of a well-liked professional basketball player, it is a step towards accepting gay rights.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Colin M said...
Although I agree with Alex that Collin's coming out is "a step towards accepting gay rights", I think eliminating advertising concerns is an equally important and necessary step for the future. According to Mr. O'C's post, fear of losing advertising revenue is a major reason why professional athletes don't reveal their identities.

In order for this to happen, a social climate needs to be created where advertisers learn that sponsoring a openly gay athlete would not hurt their image or profits.Currently, advertising companies might not sponsor a gay athlete because of this fear. This means that it is ultimately up to the public if openly gay athletes become common. If athletes do not feel the pressure from advertisers, there will certainly be many more people like Jason Collins instead of Glenn Burke.

Tom Fawcett said...

I would agree with Rachel that the media is very selective about whose stories they choose to share. In fact, today I came across a cartoon that is extremely applicable to this topic. Click below to see the cartoon.

I think this accurately depicts the media's attempt to get more viewers by covering the 'hot topic' issues. Coming out, and becoming openly gay is a discussion going on all around the country currently. Therefore, a story as big as Collins' gets a lot of attention. As a result, reporters get more viewers. Tebow on the other hand, receives very little coverage on him being christian because religion isn't as popular of a topic currently in our country. The news we see is very selective.

Kim Cole said...

While I'm glad that Jason Collins is brave enough to come out, I feel like the media does exaggerate his heroism a bit much. Whenever celebrities do something out of the norm, such as Angelina Jolie's recent double mastectomy, the hype is very alienating towards normal people. Yes, it was very brave for Collins to come out and Jolie to get the mastectomy, but what about people who haven't come out or who have chosen to delay their mastectomies (or not do them)? Calling Collins and Jolie 'brave' and 'heroic' for what they did almost implies that you AREN'T brave or heroic for doing what they did. Some people may not be comfortable with coming out due to religious, political, or family issues. This doesn't mean that they are cowardly. Some women don't feel threatened by a 65% chance of breast cancer and choose to forgo the operation. They thought their decisions through and are pretty brave for willing to take chances, too.

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