Revealing reaction

Koufax response reinforces stigma attached to gays in sports

Posted: Monday February 24, 2003 11:53 AM

  Phil Taylor - The Hot Button


Let's put this in the wink-wink language of gossip that the sleaze-mongers at the New York Post can understand: What big-city tabloid continued its long tradition of being an embarrassment to journalists everywhere by printing a completely unsubstantiated item alleging that one of the great sports icons of our time is homosexual?

The answer, of course, is the Post, which should be re-named the Compost in light of how much utter garbage appears in its pages. The Post's journalistic standards are so low that apparently no one at the paper saw any problem with running the following gossip column item last December: "Which Hall of Fame baseball hero cooperated with a bestselling autobiography only because the author promised to keep it secret that he is gay? The author kept her word, but big mouths at the publishing house can't keep from flapping."

It didn't take much reading between the lines to determine that Sandy Koufax, the subject of a current biography by Jane Leavy, was the baseball star to whom the Post was referring. Koufax was so outraged by the item that he has refused to have any further involvement with his former team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, as long as the franchise is owned by the same company that owns the Post -- Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. [Two days after it became public that Koufax had severed ties with the Dodgers, the Post published a rare apology and retracted the item, calling it "wrong."]

The Post, which circulated a similarly blind item last year hinting that New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza is gay, deserves to be called every name in the book for its shoddy journalism, despite the apology. But let's save a moment's scrutiny for Koufax himself. Why exactly was he so irate over the blurb, which had passed largely unnoticed for two months until his reaction brought it to the public's attention? Is it because he's an intensely private man who was offended by a newspaper trying to delve into his personal life? Or did he take particular offense at the intimation that he's gay?

If the latter is the case, that is certainly his right. But Koufax's reaction only reinforces the stigma attached to homosexuality, especially in sports. We can only wonder if he would have been as incensed if the Post had called him an alcoholic or a tax evader or a shoplifter. When Piazza was the subject of similar rumors, he felt the need to hold an impromptu press conference to declare that he's straight.

Being called gay remains the most damning label in sports. Items like the Post's hint at that truth, and reactions -- or overreactions -- like the one from Koufax drive the point home. The moment that athletes begin to treat rumors of homosexuality with less outrage is the moment that papers like the Post will stop printing them.

Obviously, there are gay professional athletes. If any of them were considering coming out of the closet, it's easy to imagine those thoughts disappearing when they see how desperately other athletes and ex-athletes strive to make sure they aren't stuck with that tag. When the athlete in question is someone like Koufax, widely considered to be one of the classiest and most principled sports figures of all time, it can only have an even more chilling effect.

The view here is that Koufax would have been better served to ignore the item and let Leavy refute it, if it had to be refuted at all. If he has been diminished in all this, it was not because of the Post's item, it was because of his own reaction.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor writes about a Hot Button issue every Monday on