They've Got Game!

Richard Burnett
The biggest sports story this autumn isn't the Montreal Alouettes' date with destiny at the Grey Cup, or the $100 million (US) racketeering lawsuit against Major League Baseball over who owns the Montreal Expos, or that Montreal Canadians studmuffin Mike Ribeiro was sidelined with an injury (let me help you out, Mikey). Tuaolo, who came out in an Oct 27 New York Times column by Robert Lipsyte and then again two days later on HBO's Real Sports TV show. Lipsyte doesn't miss a beat.
He writes, "The largest American athlete to declare himself gay, the 6-foot-3 Tuaolo's symbolism will also be hard to ignore; pro football players have been promoted as super-masculine warriors, no women or sissies allowed. How do you explain a 34-year-old veteran of the defensive line, the trench warfare zone of sports, living in a suburban house with his adopted 23-month-old twins and the man he describes as his husband?"
The story made news everywhere. Even PrideVision TV Locker Room host Paul DeBoy and I ended up blabbing about Tuaolo's coming out in a special gays-in-sports segment on Expos broadcaster Mitch Melnick's ab-fab morning show on Montreal's all-sports radio station TEAM 990 AM.

But Lipsyte writes Tuaolo's public coming-out was planned down to the very last detail.
"His coming out, unlike [former NFL running back David] Kopay's [public coming out in 1975], which was almost accidental, or that of Billy Bean, a former major league outfielder, which was a bold leap into the unknown, has been somewhat orchestrated," Lipsyte writes. "A gay young filmmaker, Joe Somodi, tried unsuccessfully to raise money for a documentary that would follow Tuaolo's coming-out process. While HBO passed on the project, a connection was made to a Real Sports producer, Nick Dolin.

"As the segment was shot, a publicist in West Hollywood, Calif., Howard Bragman, began stacking other news media opportunities. A friend of his, the TV personality Rosie O'Donnell, called Tuaolo with encouragement that he found supportive."

Tuaolo, of course, tells his story best.
In an Oct 30 essay in ESPN magazine, he writes, "My best games were the worst. I would get a sack, force a fumble, stuff a play on the goal line. And hours later, in the middle of the night, I'd wake up sweating, clutching my chest and gasping for breath. Maybe someone who knows saw that, I'd think to myself. Maybe they'll call the coach, or the owner, or the papers. Sometimes I'd spend hours lying awake, praying for the anxiety attack to end, hoping my head would stop spinning on top of my banged-up body.

"Then by Monday night, the hurt and the panic would change to numb depression. That's when I'd start to drink. Not beer either. Tequila. Whiskey. Into the next day, shot after shot, hoping to get so drunk that after I finished crying alone in my house, I'd pass out and never wake up. Or maybe I'd go out and get loaded at a club, then drive home drunk and wonder if I should just turn the wheel and end it all that way.

"The one thing I could never do was talk about it. Never. No one in the NFL wanted to hear it, and if anyone did hear it, that would be the end for me. I'd wind up cut or injured. I was sure that if a GM didn't get rid of me for the sake of team chemistry, another player would intentionally hurt me, to keep up the image. Because the NFL is a supermacho culture."

The person that saved Tuaolo's life appears to be another former NFL player, the aforementioned David Kopay, whom I interviewed in Hour magazine a couple of years ago. The man is an astute NFL pundit but no team or TV network will hire him. So now he sells linoleum at his family's Los Angeles linoleum store.

I've always felt saddened by Kopay's bad turn of luck but he's not bitter and I highly recommend you read the 2002 updated edition of his 1977 autobiography The David Kopay Story (Alyson Books). It is this very book that changed Tuaolo's life.

"A friend from Hawaii gave me a copy of The David Kopay Story, about the first NFL player to come out as a homosexual," Tualo writes. "I started it and didn't put it down until I finished, with tears streaming down my face. I had never heard of him, and couldn't believe it. This was me!

"Dave played running back in the NFL for nine seasons in the '60s and '70s, and hid being gay, just like I was doing. He came out a few years after he retired in 1972, and his book helped me to quit hating myself. A few weeks ago, I met Dave for the first time, at a party. It was emotional, man. "For 30 years I've been alone," he told me. Between the tears, we had so many stories. We were from different eras, but here we were, two NFL lifers talking about the great players we saw, the times we had on the field -- talking about the game. Two players who were also gay, and who came out. Incredible.

"The funny thing is, the NFL seemed almost more open toward gays in Kopay's era than in mine. Dave knew which teammates were gay, and knew about other players in the league. He even had relationships with some of them.
"My world was different. I know people are going to ask me how many other gay players are out there, or if there's a secret handshake or something. I can honestly say that in nine years in the NFL, my "gaydar" never went off. Nobody ever made a pass at me, or asked me if I was gay, or even hinted about it. I know I can't be the only one, and if gays are 10% of the population, there should be four or five gay players on every team. But other than myself, I don't know of a single one."

In other sports stories, Globe and Mail sports columnist William Houston, in a reflective piece on Ballard's life that ran on Oct 19, trashed one man's accusations that former Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard was a closeted faggot.

"Ballard, it's fair to say, was homophobic," Houston writes. "He put down just about everybody - women, minorities, journalists and employees. But in the culture of pro sport at that time, the worst you could say about somebody was that he was a homosexual."

Well, Mr Houston, you may have noticed that things haven't exactly changed.
"Over the years," Houston continues, "Ballard claimed some reporters and at least one of his coaches were gay. So, there is an irony that, 12 years after his death, he is accused of propositioning a teenage boy and having knowledge of a pedophile ring that operated out of Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1970s and 1980s."
Now, my gut feeling tells me Ballard probably WAS straight.

But, let me remind Houston that his description of Ballard is also a dead-ringer for a closeted, self-loathing homosexual. The fact that Houston glosses over this coincidence is more proof things really haven't changed in either the newsroom or the locker room.

Plus, as we all know, the vast majority of pedophiles are NOT gay men. So linking both pedophilia and homosexuality reinforces an age-old stereotype that helps athletes justify staying in the closet.
Funnily enough, perhaps the most entertaining gay-sports story I've read recently was published Nov 9 in the very conservative National Post which, quite frankly, isn't for the most part a very gay-friendly newspaper.
In a lengthy 1,500-word Gay Games piece subtitled "12,000 athletes are competing in the sixth Gay Games in Australia [and] in some ways they're more straight-up than the Olympics", journalist Allan Abel writes, "Adhering, more or less, to Olympic protocol, but without the nationalist toxin, the seventh Gay Games will be celebrated in Montreal in 2006, guaranteeing the city's hotels a massive insertion of members of dozens of city and provincial teams from around the planet.

"Athletically, they splendidly represent the state of Baron Pierre de Coubertin's noble dream of amateur sport in the 21st century -- far closer to fruition here than in the obsessed and doped-up enterprise of the modern straight Olympics.

"Twenty years after their inauguration in San Francisco, the Gay Games are a true celebration of human sportsmanship. But they also are a reflection of the state of economic parity and human rights around the globe in 2002. Nearly all the entrants are from wealthy and enlightened democracies whose citizens can afford to fly all the way to Australia just to play volleyball, and survive as outwardly Out at home: Germans, French and Dutch; Americans, Canadians and Brits. Those prancing Thai she-male princesses are a rare exception.
"And, if you were wondering -- I'm not here as one of the 12,000 competitors. Two years after the glorious Sydney Games, I'm back in Australia on my honeymoon.

"With a girl."
That last bit is a great line in a fabulously politically incorrect story that even quotes one female Canadian athlete, hockey player Janice Jackson, who quips, "Women in sport can be just lethal. There's so much back-stabbing and bitchiness. Men can have a fight, then shake hands and walk away. But women hold grudges. Women never forget."

Abel's juiciest bit is when he "wonders about the locker-room dynamic when all the players are potential players and everyone's garters are down."

Jackson then tells him, "I get really, really self-conscious. I worry that some of the other girls think that I'm gawking at them. I'm always afraid that someone will say, 'Hey -- why are you staring at my tits?'"
Now, whether you like it or not, you gotta give the Post points for chutzpah.

Richard Burnett's national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill can be read locally in Hour magazine as well as on the web at and (click on the "issues" link and scroll down to Three Dollar Bill).