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Sunday, May 28, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The WNBA's delicate balancing act

From "Game On!"

Book signing


"Game on! How women's basketball took Seattle by Storm"

(Sasquatch Books, $16.95) by Seattle Times staff reporter Jayda Evans

Tonight: 6 p.m.-8 p.m. at Theatre Off Jackson, 409 7th Ave. S.

Lone Star State flags wave proudly from light poles and the windows of mammoth trucks bulldozing their way on the freeways and streets. Men adorned in Stetson hats, handlebar mustaches and snakeskin cowboy boots pepper the population. And a portrait of the state's former governor, President George Bush, hangs above Jesus in some Mexican cantinas. The illusion is of a staunch Republican society entrenched in proud conservative family values of life, love and liberty.

Drive five minutes toward downtown on Westheimer Road and a different flag waves just as proudly among an approximate six-block radius — the rainbow flag symbolizing homosexual pride.

In Houston, Comets All-Star Sheryl Swoopes was starting to feel more detached from mainstream society. Her divorce from husband Eric Jackson was finalized in the spring of 2000, ending their four-year marriage. The two have a son, Jordan, who was named after the famed basketball player. After so much heartache, Swoopes expected the 2001 season to be another pinnacle in her career. Instead, she was the fashionably dressed player on the sideline, suffering a season-ending injury five weeks before the WNBA kicked off its historic fifth season.

The past two seasons, Swoopes had been the top vote-getter for the league's All-Star Game. She was the bare-bellied picture of heterosexuality, exposing her pregnant self on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Women in 1997.

"She's more like a legend; she had been playing for a long time," said Sonics forward Rashard Lewis, who was deep in Comets fever along with his classmates when he attended Alief Elsik High School in the Houston suburbs.

Basketball was definitely her livelihood; she earned an estimated $1 million combined from the WNBA and sponsorship deals with Nike, which was manufacturing the sixth edition of her namesake shoe. Raising a child and staring at bankruptcy due to the divorce and mismanagement of her finances, Swoopes couldn't afford the setback of the injury.

Internally, however, Swoopes was battling a different struggle.

Jackson was her high-school sweetheart and her biggest fan. Marriage became rough, however. There were disagreements, travel strained their relationship, and Swoopes told a reporter she had matured faster than her husband.

Helping her through the difficult period was Comets assistant coach Alisa Scott. Somewhere in between sobbing about Jackson, talking about basketball and sharing each other's secrets, a spark was ignited.

Swoopes was in love with a woman.

She wanted to shout to the world that she was in love, but society's anti-gay climate made her keep her feelings buried inside. People suspected, however. Hundreds within the basketball circle already knew.

"You heard rumors, but I feel like it's her life and it's her responsibility," Lewis said. "If she decides she wants to come out with it, then I don't think people should criticize because she's the one that has to worry about what she has to face. Not us."

Talent versus sex

Sixty percent of the television viewing audience is male, which traps the WNBA between marketing talent and sex. [Former WNBA president] Val Ackerman had the NBA's marketing clout at her disposal, getting 13 major companies from Coca-Cola to General Motors to spend a reported $10 million in sponsorship and advertising to support the inaugural eight-team league. Over the years came more control of what the image should be as the WNBA discovered what its fan base was and whom it still needed to target.

Spotting lesbians in a crowd or a so-called mannish-looking player has always given men credence to unfairly call the sport "full of lesbians." It's not until a Sue Bird or Swin Cash comes along, a white-and-black version of charming looks with basketball skills that'll leave a guy on his tush in a game of one-on-one, that men sit up and take notice. And although women comprise 80 percent of household purchasing power, according to marketing surveys, the television ratings, where men dominate and sponsors can hawk their product, make the WNBA kowtow to whatever that demographic wants.

The Los Angeles Sparks have held functions at Girl Bar, a lesbian hotspot. The Minnesota Lynx advertises in Lavender, the largest gay publication in the Midwest. The Storm has heavily marketed lesbians since its inception. As a league, however, the WNBA hasn't been public about its homosexual contingent.

"They better not touch that topic; I don't think it's any of their business," said Garfield High coach Joyce Walker. "I think it's their business to take care of the people that work for them that might have issues that come up to really address and making sure they're OK, health-wise. But I don't know that it's an issue for them to address with women being gay or not being gay. I don't think you sweep it under the rug, but I don't think it's a format where you have to have some big topics of discussion.

"I think you need to honor your workers, regardless of what their preferences are or what their choices are."

Walker has been with her partner for seven years, and both work at the high school. Hanging in her office is a basic white sheet of paper listing unacceptable behavior; homophobia is highlighted in yellow. It wasn't an issue with her players, many of whom dress in baggy sweatpants with hair braided in intricate cornrows, not concerned with looking overtly feminine as young girls did in the past. Walker tells her players relationship issues are "not welcome in this locker room. When you show up you need to be focused on what we're trying to do. I don't want to hear about you over here with such and such."

[Storm general manager] Karen Bryant said the WNBA is evolving toward a similar stance.

She held a commitment ceremony with her partner on a gorgeous sunny day on the shoreline of Kitsap Peninsula; many WNBA and Storm front-office people attended. She flashes her diamond ring with pride as she whisks past the KeyArena press row and labels herself an "out" lesbian, not seeing the issue as a "pink elephant in the room."

"There's a percentage of the population that I don't deal with much that is still so very narrow-minded, and my hesitation is never wanting to hurt the Storm or the WNBA because of my lifestyle," Bryant said. "I care too much about the brand, what we're trying to do, what we stand for to make my lifestyle a part of the Storm.

"There's nothing to be ashamed of or to hide about it," Bryant said. "But the league has to be careful in walking that line. Does the league value, embrace our gay and lesbian fans? Absolutely. Is it going to take a political position on gay marriage? No. What we're trying to do to be successful is try to be as inclusive as possible. We can't afford to divide our audience, it's that simple. It's not homophobia, we talk very openly about our lesbian fan base at our meetings, but we can't do it at the price of alienating another part of our fan base. And it's not our issue. It's a societal issue. We're sports, we're entertainment."

Tears were shed at the closing of Phoenix's restaurant A League of Their Own in 2004. The Storm lost 84-76 to the Mercury, and afterward fans drove to the lesbian-owned joint. Red wine and beer flowed as fans rehashed the game. The conversation turned to who's who in the WNBA — as in who's family, a sister, a lesbian. The mere speculation makes some players' skin tingle with fright and frustration.

"We don't go to their job and guess what they do in the bedroom — why is it a topic with us?" said Lauren Jackson about automatically being assumed a lesbian because she plays basketball. She declares herself single.

In NBA locker rooms, if someone isn't playing right or not acting like a so-called "man," the term "girlish" is tossed about. Sonics players insist that the way the culture is, a male athlete couldn't possibly come out of the closet like Swoopes and survive.

In fact, of the three major male professional sports — baseball, basketball and football — only MLB and NFL players have come out, but well after their respective careers ended. The most notable figures were infielder Billy Bean, who came out in 1999 after playing in MLB from 1987-95, and former UW running back Dave Kopay, who played for five NFL teams, retiring in 1973, and becoming the first out male athlete in 1975. But despite an estimated one in 10 persons in the U.S. being homosexual, none have come out in the NBA.

"It's best they keep that to themselves; I don't want to know about it," Lewis said.

"I know I love women and if there was somebody gay in the locker room, it wouldn't bother me at all," said Sonics All-Star guard Ray Allen. "I wouldn't treat them any different; he's still a teammate. But I think eventually guys like that work themselves out of the league because they gradually become alienated from their teammates because they're not like the rest. Men, we go out, even when we have relationships back home, and have fun. That's what you do being a team, you have fun together. Whatever your sexual preferences are, you still have to be able to be a part of the team and if you don't because of your sexual preferences, it pushes you away a little bit."

Attracting and incensing

What attracts lesbian fans to the WNBA is exactly what incenses lesbians about the WNBA. Since women's basketball's inception in 1892, the sport has been encircled by the women's movement. Equal rights, opportunity and accepted beauty of all types of women have been enshrouded in the bouncing basketball. As the longest-lasting professional women's team league, the WNBA provides a visual representation of what women can accomplish.

"It's so awesome to me to get a fan letter in the mail from kids that see this is a possibility for themselves or their sisters, just this newfound respect that women can be athletes, too," [Storm coach Anne] Donovan said. "They can be strong and passionate about the same thing that men can. Those kids really get it. They're getting that this is something significant and that these women are powerful."

The women are role models for adoring little fans. Unlike popular television shows such as UPN's "America's Next Top Model," the WB's "The Starlet," or any other reality-television show, the league demonstrates through each nationally televised game that competition between women does not always have to come down to beauty and that aggression is just as feminine as grace. Brawn is just as sexy as brains.

Today, youths are filled with modern images of what women can be. "Athlete" is added to the traditional list of "teacher," "nurse," or "parent." The self-esteem boost for girls has helped produce some of sports' proudest statistics — female athletes are less likely to experience teenage pregnancy and 80 percent of women executives were once "tomboys." Plus, sports make women more self-reliant.

Still, what's completely lopped off while the league posts heterosexual players' newlywed photos and baby pictures on its Web site is how much impact lesbian players could make.

In addition to Swoopes, only former New York Liberty forward Sue Wicks and current Minnesota Lynx center Michele Van Gorp have publicly stated they are lesbians while still playing in the WNBA, Van Gorp doing so in local magazines that cater to the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender (GLBT) community. The stories, primarily personality profiles treating lesbianism as an equal part of the players' physical makeup, created mini stirs in mainstream media in Wicks' case. Van Gorp's was hardly a blip across the wires. She's celebrating the fifth year of her civil union with her partner, Kyleen, and happily lives in Vermont during the offseason.

To Van Gorp, being a lesbian is not news. For years, one of the entries underneath her bio in the Lynx's media guide is she "lives with her spouse in Vermont," and the two have frequented many Lynx functions together.

The out lesbians say their reasoning is to acknowledge the family that has supported them, but none wants to be labeled a lesbian activist. In fact, WNBA player contracts specifically stipulate that players cannot say or do anything that could be considered "detrimental" to the league, and what is detrimental is conveniently defined by the league.

"Sometimes as a celebrity or a professional athlete, I don't think you're allowed to be human," said Swoopes, whose Nike contract, an 11-year relationship, remains intact. "That can hurt you, but everybody is different. I think there's enough endorsements out there for everybody. And I think everybody in the WNBA represents lots of different things besides sports, but I don't think a lot of players in the league have been given that opportunity. It's unfortunate because you have to change who you are to fight for the sponsorships, to fight for the endorsements, but that's life. That's the way it is."

A smooth tango

The players and the league dance a smooth tango around the issue. Swoopes, though she has every right, even softens her outing by saying she wasn't "born gay." The league says it has no stipulation on its athletes, and they in turn use concerns of losing endorsement deals and bringing unwanted attention onto their team as reasons to keep quiet about their sexual orientation. Lesbians and league officials, who spoke under the condition of remaining anonymous, estimated that approximately 40 percent of the 154 WNBA players could be identified as lesbians.

The league will see what the response is to Swoopes this summer. It's already planning a bang-up celebration for its monumental 10th anniversary. On its Web site during the offseason, the WNBA posted an action photo of Swoopes and a list of posts from its forum.

On the one hand, it's hip for the WNBA to market to the lesbian and gay community. The Houston Comets place ads in GLBT publications. The Storm is a member of the GLBT business bureau, made appearances at the Timberline, a gay bar downtown that closed in September 2005, and has even auctioned off Jackson at a Girl for Girl party, sending her on a date with an out lesbian.

In an era when President Bush was re-elected based on moral values and with a wave of public support to change the Constitution to include specific wording that marriage is between one man and one woman, the WNBA's stance is understandable. During the 2004 election, 12 states moved to ban gay marriages and Texans voted to strengthen the state's position against homosexual rights in 2005, the same month Swoopes came out.

The WNBA needs a $12 million stipend from the NBA to function. The WNBA expects to generate a small profit in 2007, and satisfying the wants of conservative sponsors is still the primary goal. Names like Proctor & Gamble, Toyota, McDonald's and Coca-Cola aren't synonymous with gay rights.

"A lot of times it's just educating people," [former Storm player] Edna Campbell said. "And that's across the board. Educating people on what women are capable of, what blacks are capable of — you know, not having biases and restricting people in their little box of what you think should be and shouldn't be. In America, we bred people into maintaining stereotypes. It's passed down and it has to stop."

The WNBA could be viewed as taking a stance if it spoke in support of some of its players' and fans' plights. Its "family friendly" image would be attacked, regardless of the fact that lesbians come from families, too. Players, many of whom dread playing overseas without the love and support of family, seem willing to sacrifice part of their identity in a unified effort to drag the league to stable financial ground. They probably realize that if the WNBA doesn't work with the billion-dollar backing of the established NBA, no professional women's league ever will.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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