On August 23rd at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Australian diver Matthew Mitcham, the only out gay male athlete at those games, won Olympic gold in men’s platform diving. In doing so, he prevented a gold medal sweep by the Chinese in men’s diving and he did it in most dramatic fashion: winning on his final dive and by posting the highest recorded score ever for an Olympic dive by a man.
Prior to his win, Mitcham had dealt with depression and anxiety, dropped out of competition, only to return and make the Australian Olympic team. When later asked if he was in a relationship, Mitcham disclosed he was living with his partner Lachlan Fletcher. His subsequent triumph at the Beijing Games was the most significant win ever by an out male athlete during the Olympics.
It’s a combination of sports history in the making and moving personal story that usually makes for great Olympic coverage.
Yet during NBC’s two evening’s worth of platform diving coverage, neither Mitcham’s status as the only out gay male athlete, nor his moving personal story was ever mentioned. This dramatic and historic information was instead replaced by the commentators with a vague reference to Mitcham overcoming “personal issues”.
Contacted by AfterElton.com, NBC Sports gave an initial response indicating they had no problem with their coverage of Mitcham, only to later follow up with an apology when we contacted them again.
In this exclusive interview with AfterElton.com, Bob Costas, NBC Primetime Host for the Beijing Olympics and one of the nation’s most respected sports’ broadcasters, discusses NBC’s omissions in the Mitcham coverage, how and when the sexuality of an athlete may merit mention in sports coverage, homophobia in professional sports, and what it might take for a professional athlete to come out.
AfterElton.com: Since Matthew Mitcham was the only out gay male athlete at the games, and it was historic for an openly gay athlete to win such a high profile Olympic event, do you think it would have made a good story or been worth mentioning that fact?
Bob Costas: Yes, I do. I was not focused on it. It wasn’t like I was sitting there thinking, “Gee, I have a chance to get this in.” It was just something that wasn’t on my radar screen to be perfectly honest. But had it been, I would have thought it was a worthwhile thing to mention.
Why it wasn’t mentioned by the people covering the event, that’s up to them to answer. There’s lots of different dynamics, in all these things. So I’m not being critical of them for not mentioning it. But I think – generally speaking – especially if the guy is out…
AE: He had done a big interview a few months before the Olympics. It was clear he was out.
BC: Yeah. Sure. I think it’s a story.
AE: Did you know that he was out, or that he had come out recently, or that he was an openly gay athlete?
BC: I guess I did, in looking over the profiles of many Olympic athletes in the high-profile sports. But it just wasn’t something that I was focusing on while hosting. Because a lot of times what the host does is he’ll comment on the last thing seen before it comes back to the studio. Kind of capture the whole overview. The case is that more often than not, you’re not commenting on every specific individual athlete or medal winner. That’s more done at the venue than by the host. So it just wasn’t something that was in the front of my mind.
Had it been and had the circumstance arisen so it would have played in a way that made sense, and it wouldn’t have been going around six corners to get to it – I would have done it.
AE: Would you have been concerned that maybe this wasn’t something the audience wanted to hear?
BC: No. My concern would be the privacy and the personal prerogatives of the person involved. But if the person is already out, and actually thinks that it’s an issue and worth talking about – like John Amaechi, the NBA player, or Billy Bean the baseball player – why not?
In fact I had Billy Bean on the radio show about a year ago after Tim Hardaway made his comments and they banned him from the All-Star Game.
AE: The commentators mentioned that Mitcham had overcome some personal issues, so clearly they knew or should have known he was an out gay athlete [the fact that he was an openly gay athlete did appear on the NBC website]. Is there a timidity about mentioning it, not just because there may be concern about audience reaction, but because they may feel that it’s an invasion of his privacy even though he had already come out?
BC: That is possible. Although the other thing is they may feel – and this is a reasonable consideration – that going from one dive to the next, and one event to the next, and you’re analyzing the dives and what the standings are, that those circumstances don’t allow for the proper tone and context to treat this properly.
AE: But there was pretty extensive coverage of the event that he won. And he won in extraordinarily dramatic fashion. I mean the Chinese were expected to sweep. He received the highest score ever awarded for an Olympic dive. And to mention the historic nature of that just seems like it makes total sense.
BC: Yeah. And it might have been the kind of thing that could have been handled in a two or three minute profile. You know – Here’s this athlete: ba-boom.
AE: And you wouldn’t have been reluctant to do that?
BC: Oh, God, no.
AE: Do you see from a gay perspective how enormously powerful this would have been for the gay community to have one of their members acknowledged in that way in that moment? And although certainly this wasn’t what this was all about for Mitcham, it was a part of it, because he had given these interviews prior to the games.
BC: Yeah. I agree with you on all of that. And it certainly seems to me like a worthy topic. I just don’t want to appear as if I’m criticizing any of my colleagues.
[Costas is informed that interview will run as Q&A with entire questions and answers in full so that everything he says will appear in context.]
BC: What’s more important from my perspective – since I don’t know all the ins and outs of this specific thing – but from my perspective, I think that these issues are more than valid. And if a person is already out and willing to talk about it, then certainly that’s significant in its own way. Just as it is significant if someone is the first African-American coach in the SEC [a Southern college football conference]. Or if someone is the first woman to hold this position or that [position]. These are significant issues, and they’re interesting.
Certainly the American culture at large – I mean there may be pockets of resistance and resentment, some of them large pockets – but by and large discussing issues related to gay people is no longer taboo in the mainstream media. It hasn’t been for a long time. So I don’t see why there should be any particular reluctance where appropriate to discuss them when it comes to sports.
While you can’t do this on game coverage or event coverage, you can in magazine coverage like ESPN’s Outside the Lines, or Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, or my show on HBO. The general issue on gays in sports is something that could be addressed more. And we have addressed it, and I would plan to address it more in the future.
And I think there’s always a reasonable question as to whether you discuss people who have not publicly come out. I happen to believe that is that person’s prerogative.
AE: There are certain situations where it’s part of the story, it becomes the story. There may be an issue in their personal life which is having an impact on their game play, and you can’t discuss that because they’re not out. Whereas you would discuss that with a straight person, revealing that they’re straight. Do you see any kind of double standard?
BC: That would depend. … How much I would discuss a straight person’s personal circumstances. That’s a judgment that you make case to case according to those circumstances.
AE: Let me make it more specific then. Have you ever not covered a story because in covering it you would have to ‘out’ someone?
BC: Not that I’m aware of.
AE: Of course the larger issue that’s hanging over this whole conversation is the fact that in almost all male team sports in America there are no professional out gay athletes, which is amazing in 2008.
BC: You figure that some of them may believe that it would impact their marketability and endorsement opportunities. Which is A) sad if that’s true. And B) sad also that even if it is true that some people aren’t willing to run that risk to take a more honest and principled stand. So it’s on both those levels.
AE: Do you also think that there’s concern for their safety? Especially in football?
BC: Yeah, in team sports. Esera Tuaolo [an NFL player who came out in 2002 after leaving the sport] who we’ve had on the air at HBO, he said he was concerned [about safety]. It’s a hyper macho atmosphere. A number of players – I don’t know that they represent the majority – but a number of players expressed almost Neanderthal views about sharing a locker room with a gay person, and being a teammate with a gay person and what the consequences of that would be.
AE: The consequences being…?
BC: Either that the player is ostracized or that somebody tries to hurt them, whatever that might be. There’s a pretty powerful culture at work within clubhouses and locker rooms in male team sports.
AE: A pretty powerful culture of…?
BC: Of hyper-heterosexuality.
AE: Despite the fact that clearly there are many gay athletes.
BC: Yes. How many, I don’t know. But obviously many, many.
The other thing that I’ve always felt about this is, I’m sympathetic to a gay athlete in this circumstance: While it shouldn’t matter what someone’s sexuality is as long as they conduct themselves as a responsible human being, we know that in 2008 and up until now, if someone declares themselves gay, their sexuality would be become an issue even among those who think of themselves as sympathetic. It would tend to be noted more, and be more front and center than for the heterosexual person who doesn’t have to proclaim that they’re heterosexual because that’s expected to be the case.
So the heterosexual person’s sexuality, generally speaking, becomes just a part of a larger persona. Whereas the gay person’s sexuality becomes a definition.
AE: Does that necessarily have to be true?
BC: Doesn’t have to be true, and it shouldn’t be true. But you could understand that somebody who is trying to compete and hold onto their job - and most athletes are not superstars - there’s a lot of different pressures. They don’t want to have to deal with the additional celebrity baggage or the additional baggage of scrutiny that such a thing would bring to them. And on that level – I sympathize with them.
AE: Now have you heard this from gay athletes, behind the scenes off the record?
BC: Yeah, once or twice I have. But I also just infer that.
AE: But do you feel that that is an inaccurate assumption? I look at people who come out, and it almost always opens up and relaxes the person more so they’re able to be more themselves. And people – the media, the audience, the fans – take their cue from that person as to how much a part of their life that is.
BC: And I think you are correct. But that doesn’t invalidate the observation that a number of people might feel this way. Those who have come out that I’m aware of that were in team sports, all did it on their own timetable, when they felt comfortable, when they felt able to deal with it…
AE: After they were out of the sport….
BC: Almost always after they were out of the sport. So your premise hasn’t been tested in a team sport atmosphere by an active player that I’m aware of.
AE: What kind of a player do you think it’s going to take to do that?
BC: I don’t think it necessarily takes a star player. That was the premise of the Broadway show Take Me Out – it was a big star. That would be one interesting possibility. But another would be the guy’s just an average player. Just a guy on a team and maybe he gets traded or he’s waived or he’s picked up by somebody else. I think more so than his standing as a player, it would just take a person of guts and commitment to do it.
Retired NBC player John Amaechi
AE: Of the three team sports, I think the one you love the most is baseball. And doesn’t it seem to make sense that’s where maybe it would be easiest for someone to come out first?
BC: Maybe. I mean the NBA’s leadership is generally very progressive. I think football would be the hardest because that’s the most hyper macho culture with its own mythologies attached to it. I’d be guessing as to whether the NBA or baseball would be most hospitable. There would be difficulties attached to it no matter what sport. But I think it would be most difficult in football.
AE: Has a gay athlete ever discussed with you the possibility of coming out?
BC: Before he or she had?
AE: Or even if they then never did.
AE: What do you think it will take in sports coverage for there to more coverage of this issue, and more comfort covering this issue?
BC: I think we have to - especially those of us who see it as a valid issue and are sympathetic - I think we have to do more than what we have done. It’s a good topic. There are places that are good places to do it. HBO is a good place to do it. I don’t speak for them, but ESPN’s Outside the Lines which has done some stuff on this. The kind of magazine type shows that have the time and the format to treat it with some context and nuance and some real reporting. Those are the best places. And if the issue is hit harder in those places, maybe it will have some sort of trickle down effect.
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