Men, the media and sporting heroes

"If we're going to be an exemplary community, if we're going to teach the society at large, we need to confront issues of racism, ageism and sexism that still plague us. The primary purpose of sport should be self-fulfilment, but athletics can also be a powerful medium for social change."- Dr Tom Waddell, Olympic athlete and founder of the Gay Games.

Part of Andy Warhol's maxim that, "In the future, everyone will be famous for at least 15 minutes", underscores the key role that the mass media play in constructing celebrities and heroes. In depicting sporting heroes, we can discern the pervasive media processes of 'symbolic annihilation' and 'symbolic glorification'. The former phrase alludes to the absence and under-representation of specific groups or portrayals that marginalise, trivialise or stereotype their activities. The latter term refers to the presence and over-representation of certain groups or depictions that exalt their activities and experiences, even when these are anti-social and detrimental to themselves and other groups.

Given the generally heterosexist and homophobic tenor of sport, it is not surprising that the mass media tend to symbolically annihilate both sportswomen and gay men and symbolically glorify heterosexual sportsmen. For example, there are only a handful of women sports journalists and commentators in Australia, less than 5% of media coverage is devoted to women's sport, and most newspaper items are placed in a separate section. Moreover, the coverage that does exist generally patronises, stereotypes or objectifies women. Editors and journalists often devote inordinate time and space to how beautiful sportswomen (or 'sporting mums') are rather than to their physical and mental skills. This implies to audiences that sportswomen's achievements are frivolous and that women can be beautiful despite being athletes.

Top gun athletes

BY contrast, journalists constantly celebrate the "legitimate violence" of male athletes by depicting them as heroic "warriors", "gladiators", "field generals", "hit men", "top guns" or "combatants", who are engaged in a "blitzkrieg", "battle", or "shootout", with bodies that are portrayed as machines or weapons. A good example is Australian tennis star Mark Philippoussis, who has been dubbed "Scud" because of his extremely fast serve. During the 1996 Australian Open journalists constantly referred to him in militaristic ways (eg., "firepower", "major weapon", "sinking his target", "blown away").

Male journalists are also implicated in shielding their sporting heroes from public criticism and legitimising their sexually abusive and violent behaviour. Unlike other celebrities, the "deviant" lifestyles of male athletes customarily have been (self)censored or deemed not to be good news value by journalists, who are reluctant to jeopardise their access to the locker room by reporting candid accounts of sporting life. Moreover, a considerable number of sports commentators are ex-athletes, who are reluctant to bite the hand that continues to feed them.

This fraternal bond between athletes and journalists explains why the latter venerate "superstud" athletes like "Bonking" Boris Becker, a label applied with alacrity to the purported sexual activities of the German tennis star by Fleet Street journalists, and former American basketball superstar Wilt Chamberlain, who has boasted openly of having had sexual intercourse with 20,000 women. Another example was the sympathy American basketball superstar "Magic" Johnson initially obtained from the media (eg, comments like "Poor old Magic", "Tragic Magic", "Magic"s Dilemma" and "Magic's Plight"), instead of the negative treatment that people with HIV/AIDS generally have received. A pervasive motif in media coverage of Johnson's "disclosure" that he was HIV-positive was how he unselfishly "accommodated" the insatiable sexual desires of hundreds of "fatal attractors".

She asked for it

Other sporting heroes have been depicted as the victims of female rapacity. For instance, journalist Russell Miller cast doubt on former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson's conviction for rape. He rendered highly sympathetic accounts of both Tyson - who once said, "I like to hurt women" - and his lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, who launched an appeal. Miller questioned the credibility of both the plaintiff, Desiree Washington, and the jury by citing Dershowitz: "Many feminists saw the case as very important and were wanting him to be guilty even before they knew the facts." Miller alleged that Tyson could not have received a fair trial because events had conspired significantly against him in the wake of the publicity surrounding William Kennedy Smith and Clarence Thomas. He quoted Dershowitz's contention that Washington took legal action not because she was raped, but because she was affronted by Tyson's suggestion that she either walk or take a limousine home after consenting to sexual intercourse:

This woman came on as a groupie. Everybody knows what the rules are for groupies who hang around famous athletes and rock stars. They get 15 or 20 minutes of not very good sex, no kiss goodnight, no telephone number, no appreciation. All they get are bragging rights - "I slept with the champ."

Although sports journalists are quick to claim that violent behaviour in sport builds character and discipline, they seldom report on how it breeds blind obedience to figures of authority, overrides personal autonomy and creates "overconformity" to subcultural norms both on and off the field. For instance, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard's abusive treatment of his wife was framed by the media in a classic scenario of "sin-and-redemption", whereby "the drugs made him do it". Similarly, former American football folk-hero O.J. Simpson's "fall from grace" (from superstar to wife-beater) was framed as an individual act - an anomaly when juxtaposed to his successful, morally valued sports career - rather than treated as a possible symptom of a sports culture that is systematically implicated in the reproduction of violence and misogyny.

A deadly connection

THE position of O.J. Simpson as a sports hero and the world of sport were left untarnished in media coverage of his trial for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. There was a failure to investigate wider structural issues concerning the causes of domestic violence and possible links between violence, masculinity, and sport. The media constructed an audience position that was more favourable to voyeurism and titillation than to mobilisation and concern. The media narratives surrounding the case served to exonerate Simpson's individual acts of violence against his former wife and to exscript violence against women as a 'normal' aspect of masculinity.

The revelations of chronic wife-abuse by American sporting heroes like Vance Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Warren Moon and O.J. Simpson ought to shatter any illusions there still might be about the character-building virtues of sport. Like other tightly-knit competitive male groups (eg, military units, gangs, college fraternities), sport often produces 'groupthink' - a mindset that makes men incapable of believing that there is anything wrong with their abusive or violent behaviour toward women and gay men. A particularly graphic case of groupthink in sport occurred when the English police appealed to the public to help them find the man who had been dubbed by the media as the "Yorkshire Ripper". A hoaxer, who called himself "Jack" (the Ripper), sent a tape to the police. The police had the recording played on the loudspeakers at Leeds' stadium during a soccer match, hoping it would jog someone's memory. But the predominantly male spectators drowned out the broadcast by chanting "Eleven-Nil". Eleven was the number of known women who had been murdered; nil was the police "score".

Groupthink is also apparent in the burgeoning incidents of sexual harassment and violence involving coaches and athletes. For instance, recent studies of US college campuses have shown that: one third of sexual assaults reportedly involve athletes; athletes are the second largest group after fraternity houses to commit gang rapes; and women are particularly reluctant to press charges against male athletes because of the hallowed status sport they have in society. In 1995, a former British Olympic swimming coach was sentenced to 17 years in prison for two rapes, and 11 indecent assault on young female swimmers over a 15 year period. A Canadian coach, who raped a paraplegic athlete 10 years ago, is still coaching young women.

In another case, rape charges were laid against 15 white, middle-class high school athletes from Lakewood, California, who called themselves the "Spur Posse", after their favourite professional basketball team, the San Antonio Spurs. A school PE teacher claimed the incident had been "blown out of proportion"; friends of the accused described the girls as homely, unpopular sluts and groupies; and the athletes were described as "red-blooded boys who will be boys". A father of one of the accused maintained that the Spur Posse was "no different from the band, the choir or the PTA". When the boys were released from jail they received a hero's welcome. On national television programs, some of the boys bragged about how gang members earned "spurs" or "points" for raping girls as young as 10. One boasted that about a third of his 67 victims had been virgins, and crowed, "When ya got it, ya got it". All but one of the 15 boys were subsequently acquitted.

In 1993, three white, middle-class high school football players in Newark, New Jersey were convicted of first degree sexual assault on a slightly retarded 17-year old woman, and another, on whom the woman performed fellatio, was found guilty of fourth degree sexual assault. While 9 men cheered, the athletes, two of whom were team co-captains, assaulted the woman with a miniature baseball bat and broomstick. In commenting on the crimes, social psychologist and expert on gang rape, Chris O'Sullivan, stated that, "[They] learned early and often to hurt others, to humiliate those they could, and to exploit women in order to excite mutual admiration. They learned some of it on the playing field… they learned it from the sports culture, entertainment media, and reality; they learned it from each other and from role models and "heroes"… They did not learn compassion: they learned about force and conquest. They learned to view sex as conquest."

A real hero

THE playwright Bertol Brecht once commented that he pitied nations that needed heroes. Presumably, Brecht was trying to underline and undermine nationalism, xenophobia and hero-worship - a trilogy that is perhaps most pronounced during media coverage of events like State of Origin football matches and the Olympic Games. With Brecht's caveat in mind, I would like to conclude with a brief description of the accomplishments of Dr Tom Waddell, an athlete whose achievements seldom featured in the mainstream media, but whom I consider to be a "hero".

Waddell was a physician and outstanding athlete, having placed sixth in the decathlon at the 1968 Olympics. Afterwards he participated in exhibition athletics tours of South America and Africa, where he often donated his medical skills to hospitals. During the early 1970s Waddell was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with concealing his homosexuality and came out. Around this time he also began planning an Olympics for gays and lesbians. However, he encountered staunch opposition from the reactionary United States Olympic Committee (USOC). Although the USOC had no problems with other groups using the term "Olympics" (eg, the Senior Olympics for people in later life; the Special Olympics for people with disabilities), it would not countenance a Gay Olympics - what would its corporate sponsors think!

After a lengthy and expensive legal battle, the US Supreme Court prevented Waddell from using the word "Olympics". However, he persevered and organised the first Gay Games in San Francisco in 1982. Subsequent Games in San Francisco (1986), Vancouver (1990) and New York (1994) have enjoyed huge popularity. Gay Games IV featured tens of thousands of participants from around the world participating in over 30 different events.

It is unlikely that Waddell is the kind of athlete who would have been invited by transnational companies to engage in the standard marketing exercises of many contemporary sporting heroes: flogging running shoes, beer, soft drinks, and hamburgers to adoring fans, or flaunting the logo of one's corporate sponsor while posing for a photo-op at the hospital bed of a sick child. But when Waddell died in 1987, he left an inspirational legacy of activism, courage and humanitarianism. In addition to building solidarity and dispelling homophobic myths and stereotypes about athletes, the Gay Games have been an immense grass-roots success because they are based on the principles that Waddell championed so tirelessly inclusion rather than exclusion and participation rather than winning-at-all-costs. In founding the Gay Games, Tom Waddell helped to provide an alternative to the macho, ageist, homophobic, racist and corporate practices that permeate mainstream sport. He is the kind of 'hero' we desperately need more of - both in sport and in society in general.

First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 6(2), Winter 1996. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. © Reprinted with permission.