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Sports Complex Selling 'Out': Product-Placing Jocks
by Jim Provenzano
2004-06-16

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Pictured Esera Tuaolo, who will be the grand marshall at Chicago's Pride Parade June 27.

Image is everything, as the saying goes. In the struggle for mainstream acceptance of GLBT athletes in professional sports, some gay athletes are making inroads through advertising and sponsorships.

In March, pro golfer Rosie Jones came out in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. At the same time, Jones announced that she would be a spokesperson for a lesbian-owned company, Olivia Cruises and Resorts. She told The Advocate that the endorsement offer from Olivia provided a major incentive for going public about her sexuality.

Do athletes have to secure such endorsement deals to further their careers? 'Only if they want to pull in multi-millions,' says Michael Wilke, whose Web site, The Commercial Closet (see the Web site at www.commercialcloset.org), documents the fascinating variations on gay-themed ads, from supportive to defamatory to somewhere in between—i.e., 'gay vague.'

A predominant justification given for athletes to stay closeted has always been financial. Tennis great Martina Navratilova experienced a drop in endorsements after coming out. Likewise, 'Billie Jean King says she had existing sponsors who dumped her after her announcement [of coming out],' says Wilke.

Former baseball player Billy Bean's 2000 coming out included a touching full-page New York Times article, a subsequent national book tour, and speaking engagements sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign. A TV movie based on Bean's life is in development, and Bean and Billie Jean King have been named as ambassadors for Chicago's Gay Games VII. Yet despite Bean's fame, no major companies related to sports have offered him significant endorsement deals.

Since coming out, Navratilova gained deals from companies like the Rainbow credit card and Subaru. Such ads 'help show future athletes that their opportunities are not as limited any longer,' says Wilke. 'The media brings further attention to the gay community's presence in professional sports, which creates a greater comfort level for all.'

Wilke cites a change in recent sponsorships, including a Chili's TV commercial featuring ukulele-strumming former NFL player Esera Tuaolo, now openly gay. The ad identifies him merely as 'Esera, retired athlete.' A hopeful sign is that Chili's continued the ads even after Tuaolo came out in appearances on Oprah and other national TV shows. But most viewers who see the ad probably don't know who Tuaolo is or that he's gay.

Gay viewers tend to interpret companies that endorse gay athletes as gay-supportive. But the ad agencies that used Navratilova and Tuaolo have been quoted on Wilke's site as saying that they were not making a political statement.

And does a company's sponsorship of an out athlete let them off the political hook? For instance, Coors' ongoing struggle to counteract a decades-long gay boycott against the company included a 2001 full-page print ad that featured gay Olympic swimmer Bruce Hayes wearing his Olympic medals.

But Coors' ad had a flip side. Regional print ads and promotions hardly provided a balance to their commercials deliberately snubbing gays and portraying sexually aggressive straight men. Coors' foundations have been proven to fund far right-wing groups dedicated to eviscerating GLBT rights, particularly gay marriage. (Yet some gay sports groups, several of which are in Colorado, the main base of Coors, gladly accept donations in exchange for posting Coors banners at their sports events.)

Another example of a corporation's dual nature can be found with carmaker Saturn. Three-time Junior World Champion Ina-Yoko Teutenberg is a member of Team Saturn's women's cycling team. An out lesbian raised in Germany, Teutenberg has placed first in dozens of major cycling competitions. 'It's not a big deal being a lesbian in cycling,' says Teutenberg. 'I've never had any problems. I think there are enough gay girls around in the sport.'

However, Saturn's 2003 commercial, 'Camping Trip,' offered a homophobic take on the film Deliverance amid the threat of male rape. Wilke's site rates the commercial as a negative.

Should gay consumers focus our dollars instead on companies that offer not only endorsements of gay athletes, but more consistent support of our community?

Former Olympic diver David Pichler enjoyed sponsorship from Speedo before, during, and after coming out, and as he finished his career at the 2000 Sydney Olympics at age 30. Elected team captain, Pichler finished ninth in the 10-meter platform, fourth in the men's synchro diving event with Troy Dumais, and seventh in the 10-meter platform with Mark Ruiz.

'Fortunately, for myself, Greg Louganis, and others, Speedo has been supportive,' says Pichler. 'They never said anything to me about being gay, never questioned me. They've also been supportive to IGLA (International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics).'

Still, swimming has few sponsors, Pichler says. But in considering the prospect of losing Speedo's endorsement, he says, 'It's not an issue that would have prevented me from coming out.'

See www.sportscomplex.org .


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