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Out of the locker

Sports | With his views on same-sex marriage, Michael Irvin found a way to be a hero to ESPN

Issue: "Face-off," Aug. 13, 2011

Former Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin has a story to tell. It's a story about womanizing and cocaine use and repeated run-ins with the law. But it's also a story about redemption-about taking responsibility, finding Christian faith, and living a very different life. Irvin tells that story regularly on his daily Miami radio show with little fanfare.

But last month, the Hall-of-Famer found an outlet and an angle to push his story to national prominence. The outlet: the cover of Out magazine, the world's leading publication on issues pertaining to male homosexuality. The angle: Michael Irvin is a recovering homophobe.

In a feature-length article accompanying photos of a bare-chested Irvin, the once troubled athlete suggests his long run of social dysfunction may have stemmed from overcompensation after learning his older brother was gay. It's an idea Irvin first considered during counseling sessions with Dallas megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes. "We realized maybe some of the issues I've had with so many women-just bringing women around so everybody can see-maybe that's residual of the fear I had that, if my brother is wearing ladies' clothes, am I going to be doing that? Is it genetic?"

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Irvin goes on in the Out magazine article to connect the gay marriage debate to the civil-rights struggle of African-Americans: "I don't see how any African-American with any inkling of history can say that you don't have the right to live your life how you want to live your life. No one should be telling you who you should love; no one should be telling you who you should be spending the rest of your life with. When we start talking about equality and everybody being treated equally, I don't want to know an African-American who will say everybody doesn't deserve equality."

In an instant, Irvin's story popped up on every major sports media channel in the nation. The print, radio, and television outlets that make up ESPN appeared especially eager to deliver a few congratulatory backslaps to the miscreant athlete turned social activist. ESPN blogger Dan Graziano called Irvin's appearance in Out "courageous" and "impressive," and added: "That's called being a man. Good job, Michael Irvin. Well done." On ESPN Radio, sports personalities and brothers Andy and Bryan Kamenetzky applauded Irvin for what they agreed was "a brave act." And the headline above a SportsCenter clip on the ESPN website proclaimed, "Michael Irvin champions equality." This was a redemption story ESPN wanted to tell.

In fact, the world leader in sports coverage has been searching for some time for a major sports figure to become a spokesperson for gay activism. When New York Rangers forward Sean Avery and former New York Giants star Michael Strahan recently filmed 30-second commercials in support of efforts to legalize same-sex marriages in the state, ESPN devoted full articles to each athlete. Earlier this summer, a story in ESPN The Magazine declared, "It's time for a gay all-star." And as far back as 2005, ESPN The Magazine provided a prominent forum for women's basketball star Sheryl Swoopes to come out of the closet.

As yet, no active player in one of the country's four biggest sports-football, baseball, basketball, and hockey-is openly gay. But that is not for lack of effort on the part of ESPN.

Of course, the story of homosexuality in athletics is worth covering from a number of angles. As is often the case with social issues, the sports world provides a public microcosm of the full range of positions on the matter. Athletes run the gamut from hostility toward homosexuals to respectful opposition of same-sex marriage to indifference to genial support of same-sex marriage to caustic gay activism. ESPN seems intent on selectively giving voice to only some of those camps. And that has everything to do with the story the network wants to tell.

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