WEDNESDAY morning in Washington DC. The Mystics, one of the better teams in the Women’s National Basketball Association, were playing at home at an unsociable hour. It’s not quite the packed house that worships Michael Jordan, but the crowd was larger than for an average Saturday at Pittodrie for a league whose play-offs - which began on Thursday - will barely rate a mention above baseball and gridiron’s pre-season.
In DC for a game last summer, I was impressed by the numbers watching. And the crowd was almost exclusively female. "It’s because we’re near Baltimore," said a fellow scribe. "There’s a large lesbian community there - they come down en masse to watch the games."
While the LPGA have been more closely associated with the gay community than perhaps any sporting body, women’s golf, bewilderingly, has gone to great lengths to avoid alluding to the sexuality of performers or fans. But nine of the WNBA’s 16 teams have undertaken overt marketing to their most vocal supporters, ranging from Gay Pride nights to advertising in ‘alternative lifestyle’ publications. The pink dollar still equals 100 cents.
Yet concern remains over tainting the wholesome image fostered by the league’s big brother, the NBA. Subtlety has been the trademark of WNBA efforts, which have failed to please all. The Lesbians for Liberty group held a kiss-in at Madison Square Garden, complaining that their presence had been ignored in favour of more ‘family-friendly’ targets. Ironically, their ire was directed at a New York Liberty side overseen by a gay general manager, and who feature the league’s only openly ‘outed’ player.
"The majority of players are gay, as are a lot of the management and people who work with women’s basketball," claims Valerie Still, who played in Washington last year. "When you try to hide that, you’re saying there’s something wrong."
Few have been prepared to be open about their homosexuality while active competitors, and none has come through unscathed. In tennis, Martina Navratilova and Billie-Jean King suffered at the hands of bigots, and Justin Fashanu’s brave excursion within the macho environment of football presaged a decline to suicide.
More recent cases, such as Australian rugby league star Ian Roberts and French tennis icon Amlie Mauresmo, proved simpler. After initial oohs and aahs, the issue faded. Still, most gay athletes, fearful of discrimination and loss of sponsorship, have chosen to wait until their best days have passed. Innuendo is incessant, as Carl Lewis found to his distaste.
"I can’t control what people think, but I date women," proclaimed New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza, who was forced to speak when a newspaper insinuated that he was gay. His enigmatic response highlighted the question of whether conservative America is ready for its first gay sporting star. "In this day and age, it’s irrelevant," Piazza said. "I don’t think it would be a problem at all."
But Allen Iverson, the pin-up boy for the inner-city school of basketball, proclaimed thus in an unreleased CD: "Come to me with faggot tendencies, you’ll be sleeping where the maggots be..." Condemnation was swift, but even NBA liberals doubt whether locker-rooms are ready for gay brethren.
"If you look at our league, minorities aren’t very well represented," noted Briton John Amaechi, of Utah Jazz, who received threats after espousing supposedly-non-traditional values on his personal website. "There’s hardly any Hispanic players, no Asian-Americans, so that there’s no openly gay players is no real surprise.
"It would be like an alien dropping down from space. There’d be fear, then panic: they just wouldn’t know how to handle it."