SI Vault
Edited by Jerry Kirshenbaum
May 11, 1981
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May 11, 1981


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Billie Jean King last week became the most prominent American athlete, male or female, to publicly acknowledge a homosexual liaison. That isn't to say that such relationships haven't always existed in sport. Bill Tilden was a homosexual when he was dominating the men's tennis circuit in the 1920s, but it wasn't until he was convicted, toward the end of his career, on morals offenses involving young boys that his predilections became generally known. Tom Waddell, who finished sixth in the decathlon at the 1968 Olympics, has acknowledged being homosexual, as has former NFL running back Dave Kopay. Male homosexuality is rumored to be widespread in figure skating (although one leading coach, John A.W. Nicks, strongly disagrees and says the sport merely abounds in over-sheltered "momma's boys and momma's girls") and it is not unknown in boxing. In a 1977 study of male athletes at three colleges conducted by Richard W. Smith, a professor of psychology at Cal State-Northridge, fully 40% of the 82 respondents (111 received questionnaires)told of having engaged in homosexual acts at least twice during the previous two years.

But homosexuality—or, perhaps more commonly, bisexuality—has been far more of a factor in women's sports. It is generally agreed that homosexual relations among women athletes tend to be more open, more enduring and, at the top level of certain sports, more widespread than among their male counterparts. This truth may inconvenience promoters of women's sports, who have worked hard and with considerable success to dispel the notion that women who excel in sports tend to be "masculine." But while it has certainly been proved that "feminine" athletes can excel, too, the fact remains that lesbianism (involving women who, in fact, may or may not appear "masculine" at all) is commonplace on both the women's pro tennis and, even more notably, golf circuits, so much so that it is a matter of intense and immediate speculation among the athletes as to whether tour newcomers are gay or straight. The observation Frank Deford made about women athletes in his story on Chris Evert Lloyd (SI, April 27) applies, in particular, to tennis and golf: to fend off the advances of "sexual predators of both genders," some women, Evert Lloyd not among them, have felt the need to rush into marriages that are foredoomed to failure.

For better or worse, the subject of lesbianism in sport will undoubtedly be receiving greater attention in the wake of Billie Jean King's revelations, which followed the filing of a nasty community property-type suit in Los Angeles Superior Court, in which her former secretary, Marilyn Barnett, charged that she and King had been lovers. After first calling Barnett's charges "untrue and unfounded," King held a press conference and, in the presence of her parents and her husband of 15 years, Larry King, told of having had "an affair with Marilyn Barnett which has been over for quite some time," a relationship that King termed "a mistake." As though this cause c�l�bre isn't enough, a movie now in the works called Personal Best may draw further attention to lesbianism in sport. Produced, directed and written by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Robert Towne, it features Mariel Hemingway as a hurdler who has a lesbian encounter before falling in love with a water polo player—portrayed, as it happens, by SI Senior Writer (and former Olympic marathoner) Kenny Moore.

As the phenomenon of lesbianism in sport comes under closer scrutiny, Martin S. Weinberg, sociology professor at Indiana University and author of a forthcoming book entitled Sexual Preference: Its Development in Men and Women, holds to a view some may find jolting. "I know it's controversial to say it, but I believe you can be born with homosexual predispositions," Weinberg told SI Reporter Jane Bachman. " 'Masculine' females may gravitate toward stereotypical 'male' activities because that's where their talents and interests lie. Such females may get involved in these activities at a very young age, which can ultimately lead to their involvement in the world of sport." Before Weinberg's remarks are discounted, it might be noted that some coaches in Communist countries, where homosexuality carries even more of a stigma than in the West, partly attribute the triumphs of their women athletes to their success in recruiting women of "masculine" stock.

Such biological considerations aside, other experts prefer to attribute the high incidence of lesbianism in sport to cultural factors. Thus, despite all the efforts made in recent years to lure them onto the playing field, some heterosexual young women persist in feeling that their proper place is on the sidelines as cheerleaders, a fact that may contribute to the disproportionate number of lesbians to be found among leading women athletes. Another oft-heard explanation is that some women athletes, disillusioned by one-night stands with a succession of locker-room-door Johnnies, turn to other women almost in desperation. Rita Mae Brown, a lesbian activist and author (Rubyfruit Jungle) who shares a house in Charlottesvile, Va. with Martina Navratilova, insists that the same thing happens with traveling women generally and goes so far as to say, debatably, that "there's a much greater percentage of lesbians in the theater than on the tennis courts."

Jane Frederick, the American record holder in the pentathlon, claims that because men and women usually compete alongside one another at track meets, lesbianism is not as common in her sport as in tennis and golf. But Frederick revealed last week to SI's Anita Verschoth that she had had "personal experiences with other women" that would fall in the realm of sexual experimentation, or as she preferred to put it, "mutual discovery." Frederick elaborated: "My experiences with other women don't really color my personal preferences, because I'm still nuts about men. But many women athletes are attracted to one another. I'd say it has a lot to do with the fact that we're so physical and concerned with our bodies—and with the rediscovery of those bodies. We relate to other women in sport, and there's a kind of kinship among us. Women are attracted to me as much as men are. I know that. There's an affinity that makes one woman understand the pleasure of another. That's what draws us to each other. The attraction is especially important with athletes because we're so physical-minded. We're close to another dimension in sexuality."

Unless they care to go public on the subject as Frederick now has—or, as in King's case, unless they feel compelled by circumstances to do so—the sex lives of individual athletes are strictly their own business. But this isn't to say that the subject is therefore completely off-limits. The study of sexuality can be a legitimate source of inquiry into what makes great athletes tick, just as the study of personality, diet or psychological traits can be. Coaches and physiologists have studied the emotional and physical effects on athletes of heterosexual activity. In this respect it may actually be a welcome development if Billie Jean King's revelations, painful though they may otherwise be, focus attention on the important and heretofore forbidden subject of homosexuality in sport.


Now that their 1981 draft is over, NFL clubs have a problem: How can they sign rookies to lucrative, long-term contracts without sowing discontent among their veterans? Such contracts are advisable because the NFL Players Association contract expires in July 1982, and there's an insurgent group, consisting mainly of agents and star players, urging the NFLPA to push for unrestricted free agency. Ed Garvey, the NFLPA's executive director, opts instead for a formula by which players would divide, according to length of service, a specified share of the NFL's gross revenues, which, not incidentally, are expected to increase dramatically under a new TV contract currently being negotiated. A showdown is likely at the NFLPA's convention next month in Chicago, and whatever course is settled on, salaries will increase. When it was reported that the New York Giants, anticipating such an increase, were prepared to select North Carolina Linebacker Lawrence Taylor and offer him a three-year, $750,000 deal, some Giant 'vets, unhappy over the prospect of a rookie earning more than themselves, let it be known they wouldn't be hospitable to Taylor. Taylor sent Giant G.M. George Young a telegram expressing his dismay and, as the minuet continued, his agent, Mike Trope, said that $750,000 wasn't enough money anyway and that, well, Taylor might just play in Canada. Undaunted, the Giants went ahead and made Taylor the No. 2 overall selection (Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers of South Carolina was New Orleans' choice as No. 1), and the Giant veterans said they'd be nice to the kid after all.

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