Twenty-three years ago, I didn’t know Kordell Stewart. I never met him, but I sure did root for him when he was a quarterback for my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers during the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was without question one of my favorite players. I was in awe of his tremendous talents.
And, shamefully, I also helped perpetrate a big lie about him, and recent events have made me look back at that time with some deep regret.
Stewart talked about that big lie recently when he penned a column for the Player’s Tribune, and during a candid appearance on The Tamron Hall Show recently. I had forgotten all about Stewart until all of the news reports circulated that he had finally opened up about what happened to him. And then, I became immeasurably sorry for what I had done.
According to Stewart, he first learned about the big lie in November of 1998 when a close friend called to tell him a rumor he heard at the barber shop. Stewart thought it was a joke at first, until he showed up for practice the next day at the Steelers home at the time, Three Rivers Stadium. He was summoned not only to the owner’s office, the late Dan Rooney, but also to the head coach’s office at the time, Bill Cowher. Both were understandably concerned about him because they heard the lie too.
There’s an old saying, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” That’s what happened to the lie about Stewart. This was before the internet and social media provided forums like QAnon for lies to be easily started and spread. The false story about Stewart appeared ostensibly out of nowhere. And it spread wickedly fast. I was in New York City at the time when I heard it. Everyone in Pittsburgh seemed to know about the lie. Sadly, I helped extend the lie by telling others what Stewart allegedly did, and who he allegedly was.
At the time, the real Stewart was a rising star in the NFL. His nickname was Slash, because he could do it all, an excellent passer, runner, and receiver. He had just done his first Nike commercial, with Jerry Stiller, the legendary actor, comedian, and Seinfeld star who marveled at Slash’s on-the-field wizardry. Stewart was a young 26 years old, helming one of the NFL’s most storied franchises. He was also Black in a city that 20 years ago seemingly preferred its starting quarterbacks to be white.
And straight. The story I heard was that Stewart was caught in a lewd act in a Pittsburgh park with another man. It never happened, but the untruth became a cruel legend, and buzzed around Stewart for the rest of his career. He was Black and gay, and that wasn’t a good look in the 1990s.
During that time, there were no out athletes, and really no out role models for someone like me who was gay and deathly afraid that his masculinity was threatened because of his sexuality. Hearing that Stewart might be gay, and the fact that he was a professional football player, and with the Steelers, well that was almost too good to be true for me. And that’s the point. It was too good – or in this case, too wrong – to be true. And that was, and is, a pithy excuse to pile onto a rumor.
It was around this time too that Ellen DeGeneres took the bold risk of coming out as a lesbian, not only in her personal life, but professionally, via her sitcom. After she did so, the ratings tanked for that show. And Ellen’s popularity plunged. And she faded away. It sent a chilling message to anyone who was struggling with their sexuality – dare to come out, particularly at work, and you will pay a price.
So, I grabbed onto a rumor as a way to validate my sexuality, particularly to coworkers that knew my secret, my straight friends who loved sports like I did, and especially all those still back in Pittsburgh. See, the inference I was trying to make to all of them, and to myself, was that if Kordell Stewart was gay, then the way I was wasn’t bad. And because I was gay I must know this tale to be truth, since during that time my straight friends assumed all gay people knew each other. It all seems so childish. And dangerous.
In his column, Stewart points out that he has grown a lot over the years, and from that lie. “I’m telling you this story today as a 48-year-old man who has learned a lot and has grown a lot. I got nothing but love for everybody, no matter what their sexual orientation is. It’s great to see how much the world has evolved in the last 20 years. But when this was all happening? Man, you have to understand, I’m a young Black quarterback in a blue-collar town. Being the target of those kinds of rumors? At that time? In that era? In that NFL?”
Looking back, it’s hard to explain to someone of this generation why that lie was perceived to be so damaging at that time. Today, rumors about some athletes being gay are all over the place, and they hardly matter. But back then, wow. And, while my intentions for spreading the rumor were personal, others’ purposes were undoubtedly cloaked in racism.
Even during the 1990s, the blue-collar mentality that was prevalent in Pittsburgh harbored a sinister and silent bigotry. You tolerated a Black quarterback at that time only if he was winning, and Stewart points that out in his column; yet, if you labeled him as gay in addition to being Black, well now you had a reason to be vocal about your disdain for him, and wanting him on the bench, or worse, off the team.
I have told the story before about campaigning with the congressman I worked for from suburban Pittsburgh after he had a child out of wedlock exposed, and hearing grown men congratulate him for “knocking up” a woman. They expressed their relief, over and over again, “at least you’re not a f**.” That stung; still does. I also heard the n word more times than I could count. Stewart heard those evil slurs too. He was a public figure, an athlete. A young man trying his best.
I was a young man too, albeit a little older than Stewart. Nevertheless, I was still stigmatized by the fact that I was gay and shuddered at the mere mention of the word “gay.” If my self-loathing self was embarrassed to be gay, I can only imagine how a straight Stewart felt.
It all feels so antiquated now. But Stewart’s retelling of his experience with the lie has unearthed a lot of things that I wasn’t happy about back then, most notably of course, myself. And most regrettably, feeling it was my right to determine his sexuality, and mouth off about it. As if only a gay man could know another “gay” man. That dichotomy isn’t lost on me.
And, there’s irony in the fact that Stewart did the Nike commercial with a Seinfeld cast member. That show was famous for an episode where Jerry was falsely outed, and the catch-phrase that always followed the word gay, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” But that wasn’t necessarily true then. You could be gay, like me, and not gay, like Stewart, and realize that there was something wrong with that.
Stewart’s column was honest and fair, unlike the way he was treated over 20 years ago. It should make all of us question the way we speak about somebody, particularly if we don’t know them. And as gay men, and perhaps gay men of a certain age who should understand a richly bigoted past, we should be more circumspect about how we label someone. So many still struggle with their sexuality, so many are still haunted by it, while others are filled with hate.
I want to apologize, again, to Stewart. I also want to thank him for being so candid about his experience and making me realize some things that I never really thought about before. There is nothing wrong with being a gay athlete. He knows that. But there is something wrong with falsely labeling someone as gay in order to demean their athleticism, their masculinity, or their ethnicity. Stewart knows that. All too well.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.