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Lesbians in
sports—still an issue

Lesbians in
sports—still an issue

It really shouldn't matter by now, but apparently it still does. For two very different reasons, it matters greatly to Sheryl Swoopes and Laila Ali. And even though we live in politically correct times, it seems to matter to a lot of America's sports fans too. Lesbians play sports, which by itself is no big surprise. The L word has hovered around women's sports since the days when players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League wore long skirts to make them look more feminine. The bigger surprise is how often the issue keeps coming up. And for this discussion, we won't even count the two Carolina Panthers cheerleaders recently caught in a bathroom stall. "There is this fascination with the sexuality of women athletes," said Todd Crosset, an associate professor of sports management at the University of Massachusetts. "If a woman is really good at her sport, people will question her sexuality." That fascination has been fueled in recent weeks, most notably by Swoopes when she came out of the closet and announced not only that she is a lesbian but also that she is involved with one of her now former coaches. "I feel like I've been living a lie," the WNBA's best player said. "I'm finally OK with the idea of who I love, who I want to be with." Ali had an announcement to make last week too. She announced that she isn't a lesbian, debunking Internet rumors to the contrary. "I am not dating, nor will I ever be dating, a woman, because I am not gay," Ali said. That Ali had to come out and make such a statement reflects as much on the sport she's in as it does the fact that people who cruise the Internet often aren't able to distinguish truth from the blogging rumor mills. She's a boxer. Gay boxers, even if they're women, don't sell. So she took it upon herself to say something, even though she should have had no reason to say it. Mike Piazza faced the same issue a few years ago when he held a press conference to announce he dated women, not men. Michael Vick found himself forced to do the same. There's a big difference, though, between the sexes when it comes to same-sex attraction. Any male athlete who came out--and so far no current player in a major sport ever has--would likely be ostracized by teammates and mocked by fans. NBA commissioner David Stern recently said a gay player would be a nonissue because his teammates would simply judge him on his production. That was the PC thing to say, but the real answer came later from Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "They would kill him," Rivers told the Boston Herald. On the other hand, there are already women like Swoopes and golfer Rosie Jones who not only feel liberated by declaring that they are gay but are profiting from it. Both have endorsement deals with a cruise line that caters to lesbians. "It says volumes that Swoopes came out and she came out with a sponsor," Crosset said. "Why not use your body to sell products?" It's hard to imagine any mainstream companies jumping on that bandwagon. Being a gay athlete carries a big stigma, as tennis player Martina Navratilova found out when her endorsement deals vanished after she acknowledged she was gay in the 1980s. One look into the stands at a WNBA game speaks volumes about the dilemma faced in marketing female athletes. While there are families with children and men who simply like basketball, there's also a big contingent of lesbian fans who keep the league alive. Three years ago a group calling itself Lesbians for Liberty staged a kiss-in during time-outs of a New York Liberty game to get the team to acknowledge lesbians' presence. The Los Angeles Sparks, meanwhile, marketed the team at gay bars in Southern California. And while the first major championship of the PGA season is played in Augusta, Ga., the LPGA equivalent is the Nabisco Championship in Palm Springs, Calif. Not coincidentally, the tournament week is also known as "Lesbian Spring Break," and gay couples party in the clubhouse when the day's play ends. If it weren't for those fans, women's sports would have had a lot tougher time getting the small foothold it has. "There used to be such a stigma about lesbians in sports that you really have to give credit to the lesbian community for keeping women's sports, particularly collegiate sports, alive in this country," said Crosset, who wrote a book on the LPGA Tour. The stigma, though, is still there. A former Penn State player recently claimed that she was tossed from the team because the coach mistakenly thought she was a lesbian. She, like many female athletes, must defend their sexuality on a continuing basis. That's reality, no matter how many ways you spin it. (Tim Dahlberg, AP)

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