Jock Talk: The evolution of the B.A.R.'s sports coverage
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Through the first 50 years of the Bay Area Reporter's existence, the paper's coverage of sports and sports-related topics has evolved from that of cheerleader and recording secretary to social advocate and noble muckraker.
Sports reporting was less than an afterthought when the B.A.R. started publishing in April 1971. The first sports item — a story with no byline about annual awards presented by the local gay bowling league that identified most individuals only by surnames and first initials — did not appear until page 27 of the third issue, May 1, 1971.
Classified ads also debuted in the issue. There were 11 of them, including one from a man who wanted "info or advice on Sex Change Operation" and another advising us that a foot fetishist likes "to go down and groove on male feet."
The classified ads took root and were huge revenue streams going forward. Sports coverage? Not so much.
There were several contributing factors as to why sports was such a minimal element in the coverage of the early 1970s but became a major staple in later years. First, there was not a lot of queer-centric sports activity to sustain coverage or attract readership. Second, news coverage back then was by necessity focused on events and changes that were literally life-threatening and life-changing. Hate-directed arson, murder, threats of castration and quarantine, lack of employment or housing security — a local softball score seemed secondary to all of that.
When the Community Softball League beat the local police department 9-4 in 1974, the story written by Bill Kruse was headlined, "COPS BEATEN!" It was the first time sports appeared on the front page — and the first time a story was printed about gays beating cops in a game, and not about cops beating gays in the streets, in the bars, and in their homes.
When sports were covered in the early years, the coverage was focused largely on what local sports clubs needed most: reports on scores, league standings, schedules, and officer elections. In the pre-internet world, print communications were expensive for amateur clubs; they largely depended on news media to raise awareness about their very existence for newcomers flocking to the area from locales that offered no sports activities tailored to their needs.
Early columnists came and went, usually concentrating on just the single sport in which they were involved, and usually disappearing once their sport finished its season for the year.
In 1975, Bruce Bruno started the year by writing three columns on bodybuilding but he was gone by March. Jack Burden followed with "Bertha At Bat," a series of eight stories that reported game action in the softball league.
Celebrity feature writer Donald McLean wrote a wonderful profile of bodybuilder and future California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the March 18, 1976 issue.
A columnist with a viewpoint
That same issue introduced B.A.R. readers to Irene, aka Jack McGowan. A sports person and writer with a viewpoint. With detailed suggestions. With barbed criticisms. You know: a columnist.
McGowan's column-writing days — he wrote his final one in April 1977 — marked the first time anybody at the B.A.R. made editorial commentary about sports, as well as the first time a writer wrote about anything beyond his chosen sport.
McGowan, who died in 2009, said he wrote his first draft for the column, which was supposed to cover the softball league's annual meeting, months earlier, but that it had gone through endless rewrites because of the incessant internal bickering that was plaguing the league. "The seemingly endless encounters of commissioner, secretary, managers, committees, sponsors, and players could easily fill a trilogy on not 'How to conduct a Softball League' but rather on 'How to tear asunder an organization that was built on friendly and manly competition,'" he wrote. "The pettiness, bitchiness and personal power struggles have been worthy of a Tavern Guild Council Meeting. ... Accusations flowed freely of unholy triumvirates; jealous Mary of Scotts pretenders to the commissionership; and the supposed ambition of the new commissioner to bring to life Eugene O'Neil's infamous Emperor Jones."
If there were hashtags back then, they would have been #snark and #trashtalk.
"This is a sports column and columns are just that — Expressions of Personal Views," McGowan later wrote in defense of his writing. "Any columnist who is not biased in expressing his views is merely involving himself in a tremendous waste of time and talent while, at the same time, boring the hell out of his readers."
McGowan's best tagline? "To enjoy sports, you have to be one."
In his first column, McGowan wrote about the need for inclusiveness in sports. He said a major issue with the bar-affiliated teams was that they (unsuccessfully) opposed the inclusion of players as young as 18 years old. Two columns later, he said the league needed to require players to have appeared in a minimum number of regular season games before appearing in post-season play, but that participation of straight players who played during the regular season should not be barred from postseason competition. Those comments presaged battles fought repeatedly by San Francisco over the decades with the Gay Softball World Series, most recently when series officials decided that four persons of color playing for San Francisco were not gay enough for them and threw the team out of the tournament during the championship game.
Gay Olympics fracas
The August 14, 1980 issue of the B.A.R. marked a turning point in its coverage of sports. It was on that day that the newspaper officially announced that a new event, the Gay Olympic Games, would be held in San Francisco in the summer of 1982.
Over the years, queer-centric sports in the Bay Area had grown steadily. A gay basketball team had beaten a team from the San Francisco Fire Department in 1977. B.A.R. sportswriter Jim Duncan helped found the multi-sport USA-SF Athletic Club, telling readers at the start of 1978 that "in four short months the USA-SF Gay Athletic Club has attracted 570 men and women. Gay skiers are flocking to the Sierras and the USA cabins. Volleyball, basketball, football, softball and wrestling teams are working out; tennis racquetball, squash and badminton matches are taking place each week; and a dozen other sporting activities are underway." Lavender U Joggers ran frequent ads listing its upcoming runs before announcing its name change to Front Runners at the start of 1979.
Mark "Bubbles" Brown, a well-known figure in the local softball, bowling, and drag scene, made his debut as B.A.R. sportswriter in the August 3, 1978 edition, reporting the results of the Community Softball League season. He became the most frequent sportswriter for the paper for the next few years. He was the one who reported on San Francisco being disqualified from the 1978 Gay Softball World Series because of the number of straight players on its squad. He wrote the announcement about the new Gay Olympics.
"In 1968, four hundred students were massacred in Mexico City for protesting the Olympic Games," his story began. "The Olympics since then have been characterized by similar tragedies. The politics of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow have damaged the Olympic movement, perhaps irrevocably. In 1982, however, the world would be invited to the first truly peaceful and non-political Olympics in the modern era. It will be called International Gay Olympic Games I, to be held in San Francisco. Opening day ceremonies are scheduled for late summer of 1982. This will be an international event; and, as in the spirit of the original Olympics, representation will be by city and not country. All cities of the world are eligible to send athletes."
At the end of his sports roundup in the last issue of 1980, Brown reports that the first board of directors for what we now know as the Gay Games was elected: Jim Cairnes, Jim Dollard, Stephen Kopel, Wayne Taves, Tom Waddell — and himself.
Over the next two years the B.A.R. gave heavy coverage to the planned Gay Olympics (simply referred to as the '82 Olympics in the banner that appeared over updates written by founder Waddell). The transition from cheerleader to activist was beginning.
In time, Waddell took over writing the B.A.R. sports column and kept up a steady drumbeat for the planned event. Then the bombshell that shook the organizers and reshaped its mission forever dropped in the January 21, 1982 edition.
"Gay Olympics Must Drop Word 'Olympic'" the front-page headline screamed.
The battle that ensued was bitter and costly. The United States Olympic Committee said its decision not to grant an exemption for the gay event was not homophobic; few bought it. Waddell told the USOC San Francisco organizers planned to use the word for its event — the organizational name had already been changed to San Francisco Arts and Athletics — and requested a response by the start of February. The USOC remained silent until obtaining a temporary injunction seeking a permanent injunction to be heard on August 19, nine days before the opening of the Gay (Bleep) Games. (An attorney who represented the USOC in that lawsuit was Vaughn Walker, who decades later as a federal judge presided over a trial in San Francisco on same-sex marriage and came out as gay afterward.)
At the same time, HIV and AIDS were beginning to ravage our community. In many ways, events on those battlefronts paralleled each other, even inspired each other. People adjusted their sexual practices and worked toward solutions and salves. The Gay Olympic Games crossed out the word literally, in their promotional materials, and their hearts. They found a greater mission, one focused on empowerment and inclusivity rather than glory and elitism. They lost that war of words but won the battle for betterment.
The Gay XXXXXXX Games that year? Huge hit. Tons of local coverage.
The San Francisco Chronicle declined to cover the event at all.
Local community sports coverage flourished in the B.A.R. in the years following Gay Games I and the legal battles with the USOC. Information about past and upcoming events began consuming more and more space as sports became recognized as a significant and growing part of local queer culture.
With the advent of the internet, clubs focused their communications more on email, websites, and social media. The demand for sports commentary shifted.
A leap forward
B.A.R. sports coverage took a leap forward into relevance when Jim Provenzano made his sports columnist debut in the August 29, 1996 edition. Yep, the tail end of his initial Sports Complex column gave readers a bit of upcoming recreational sports events, but his prose ranged from movie gossip about an upcoming Greg Louganis film to well deserved snark for a homophobic Giants pitcher.
Suddenly, nothing was out of bounds.
Over the next decade, Provenzano grew and flourished as a columnist and reporter. His investigative reporting contributed to the demise of the financially mismanaged AIDS Ride (precursor to AIDS/LifeCycle) and exposed the duplicitous nature of marketing for the 2006 Outgames in Montreal. He led the shift of focus in gay sportswriting from game scores and tournament stories, to social injustices and the empowerment LGBTQ individuals and groups gain through sports endeavors.
Provenzano covered sports through the end of 2006. He covered three quadrennial Gay Games, from the financial perils leading up to the competitions to the post-tournament observations of the participants. The last few years some of his columns became syndicated, so his focus broadened to accommodate international interests.
Provenzano's ability to reach out to strangers across the globe for stories was aided considerably by the advent of internet chat boards. But the growth of the internet and the rise of social media made local recreational organizations less dependent on newspapers for publicizing scores and schedules as those moved to social media. What they needed by the time I succeeded Provenzano at the start of 2007 was commentary and analysis about issues arising as the LGBTQ+ community interacted more and more with the greater mainstream sports community.
Jock Talk arrives
The impact of drug testing on HIV-positive and transgender athletes. The intersections of sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism in sports. The competition for LGBTQ athletes' tourism dollars. Demands that intersex women be surgically mutilated before being allowed to compete.
Before joining the B.A.R., I had already spent the vast majority of my life in sports in a multitude of roles: athlete, coach, fan, organizer, volunteer, activist, advocate — and full-time, professional sportswriter and editor. That ongoing activism created the same kind of potential conflicts that existed for many of the earlier B.A.R. sportswriters and I acknowledged as much in my first column, titled, "I'm Bart Simpson — who the hell are you?"
I told my readers, "LGBT sports coverage (what little there is of it) in general and the Bay Area Reporter in particular have been damned and blessed with a fine heritage of participatory journalists: sports writing by sports participants. I am just the latest in that line and will do my best to maximize the blessing and minimize the damnation."
I've done my best to live up to that promise. I haven't backed away from my opinions and have been open about my biases. Teams become families, not of biology but of choice. So many of us in the LGBTQ community have had a need for such formed families and it has been a blessing to be witness to so much of that community building. I asked Provenzano recently what he liked most about writing sports for the B.A.R.
"Seeing the multitude of communities that exist," he said. "The tribalism, which exists in a fun way. They are all different folks with so many nuances, having fun, coming together."
Or in the words of Irene, "To enjoy sports, you have to be one."
Roger Brigham's weekly Jock Talk column has been on hiatus for the last year due to the pandemic, though he has written occasional pieces.
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