The Sports Xchange
April 30, 2009
By Gwen Knapp
The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
The written complaint from Rangers general manager Glen Sather about homophobic taunts directed at his team by Washington fans might have made history.
The document appeared to be little more than a "they started it" justification for Rangers coach John Tortorella's outrageous behavior until Sather got to this part: "According to Rangers trainer Jim Ramsay, one patron was screaming at the team, in graphic language, about whether Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have a sexual relationship."
We know that jerks say things like this at sports events all too often. But we rarely see the names of the targets spelled out, certainly not in a letter to a league commissioner. The specifics of these slurs tend to remain resolutely in the closet, with athletic directors, GMs, coaches, sportswriters and athletes themselves all energetically barring the door. There is just too much potential to shame the recipients, to suggest that they might, in fact, be gay.
This is homophobia doubling back on itself. In fact, the silence is probably more purely phobic, while the slurs are more hateful. Either way, being called gay is an accusation, an insult or -- as Tortorella's assistant described the language that incited his boss -- slander.
If there is a gay man in the Rangers organization, he probably didn't take that statement as a pure show of support. It wasn't quite the same as if, say, Rick Adelman had gone berserk and explained that he did so after hearing a fan scream a racial epithet at Yao Ming or Ron Artest.
Of course, no one is claiming that Tortorella's absurd behavior was simply about the alleged homophobic taunts. Sather's letter lists other security lapses behind the visitors' bench in Washington. Then there's the fact that the Rangers were losing 4-0 when Tortorella squirted water into the crowd, tossed the bottle at a fan, then menacingly waved a stick.
If homophobic slurs alone could send a coach into a rage, shouldn't one of the Rangers' leaders have thrown a tantrum over the "Ho-mo Lar-ry" chants that accompany a fan's traditional, goofy dances at Madison Square Garden?
Gay fans, including a member of the New York City Council, complained last season that the arena felt hostile to them, especially when fans booed a scoreboard acknowledgment of a gay hockey association. The team promised to increase security and warned fans that abusive language would result in ejection, but no one did a Bobby Knight impersonation over the issue.
Perhaps Sather's letter suggests a newly heightened sensitivity, but the club still needs work. Tortorella's reaction merely encourages more gay-baiting and other forms of abuse. The coach lost control and got banned from Game 6. The hecklers won.
All coaches and players learn how to handle generically obnoxious fans, but the homophobic variety presents a conundrum. Indifference to slurs implies that they are acceptable, but how does a player or coach address them without appearing to protest too much?
A certain amount of fearlessness is required. A little wit doesn't hurt, either. It's the basic formula for dealing with a bully.
Imagine if someone on the Rangers bench had hollered: "Girardi and Staal? Come on, Girardi can do better."
Does that sound impossible? The sports world is changing, very slowly, but it's changing.
Ten years ago, a reporter uttering the word "gay" in a pro locker room or clubhouse would have invited all sorts of trouble. Four years ago, after they won the World Series, several of the Red Sox appeared on an episode of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." I asked some of them about the experience. Johnny Damon, as free-spirited as anyone in the game, said he'd welcome a gay teammate and smack him on the butt just like everyone else.
But the guy who made the strongest impression was catcher Doug Mirabelli, who after mulling things for a few minutes, asked: "What do you think 'homophobic' means?"
I told him that I thought fear created all kinds of bigotry and hatred, but that the secrecy surrounding sexuality contributed layers of paranoia. In the end, though, his question was more informative than my answer. Mirabelli wasn't entirely comfortable with the conversation because he remained uncertain about his thoughts. But like Sather naming the targeted players, he didn't treat the issue as too dangerous to approach.
(Gwen Knapp is a sports columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle.)