It’s Always about the Showers

The National Football League, like the military, appears to do most of its work naked and in the showers based on the rhetoric that often appears when the issue of integrating gay men into their ranks arises.

A “shower panic” argument by former NFL player Kenneth Hutcherson–now a pastor and anti-gay activist in Washington state–in the Washington Post’s The League conversation about gays in the NFL raises an interesting question about when to include extreme rhetoric and views or quotes in an otherwise rational, balanced piece of journalism.  Here’s what Hutcherson had to say:

It’s like having a woman on the team or having a woman in the shower. How can you keep your mind on the game when you’re thinking about running back to the showers? It would have a tremendous effect. It would be safer for the team and the individual if they didn’t come out.

The Hutcherson column doesn’t really make a lot of sense on a lot of levels, and that’s disappointing because the rest of the conversation–which includes David Kopay and Outsports.com’s Jim Buzinski–is actually realy interesting and balanced.  Dealing with issues like homophobia in the African American community, homophobia in sports, and general questions about teamwork and masculinity make for a fascinating discussion and a great use of on-line journalism.

But back to Hutcherson and the showers. The journalism question is why–and when–someone with Hutcherson’s views should be presented in an otherwise reasoned discussion of LGBT issues.  In this context–as part of a conversation with multiple opinions being presented as opinions–Hutcherson’s inclusion makes sense.  He did play in the NFL, he does have a lot of opinions about gays, and while his opinions may be harsh, they do represent a segment of the opinions relating to gays in the NFL.

If I were writing a story about gays in the NFL, or about LGBT issues generally, would I include Hutcherson as a quote?  Probably not. Journalists can be balanced and fair with lots of voices without always calling up the most extreme voices.  Every story about LGBT issues does not require a quote from an anti-gay minister.  Some stories do, of course, but not all of them. Fair and balanced does not mean seeking out the most extreme voices in an effort to provide “balance.”

I spent time covering the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in Congress and one of the big struggles was finding opposing voices to quote in stories.  While there were plenty of spokespeople supporting ENDA, there were very few opposing it.  That quandry meant sometimes the only spokespeople were some fairly extreme voices.

After a conversation with my editor, we ultimately decided that those extreme voices didn’t represent the mainstream of the opposition–and weren’t really connected to our readers’ concerns–so we decided we need to look for other sources.  The challenge with ENDA as a business story is that the business argument against ENDA had few vocal opponents or people who wanted to be quoted in a story.

The lesson is that using extreme voices is often the path of least resistance.  They answer the phone and put out press releases.  But journalists need to try harder and not just use dial-a-quote extremists. Journalists also need to question whether they are really doing their readers–agree or not with LGBT issues–a service by using extreme voices that are outside the mainstream.

4 Responses

  1. It’s always about the showers because it’s always a myopic view that somehow gays and lesbians really want to convert straights and can’t be trusted. I imagine the reality is more about being able to share who someone is not about expressing sexuality in ways that create awkwardness for either party. In other words, having a preference for your gender doesn’t equate to having a specific preference for you.

  2. I equate this with the argument about ” incest” with children. Anything to tear down the community’s rights.

  3. Was this package of opinions really “balanced”? It looked like only one of the 10 people quoted actually opposes the idea of openly gay players in the NFL.

    That hardly seems to reflect the population at large (or NFL fans, players or officials).

    The problem with rejecting “extreme” viewpoints is that it allows us to dismiss them as irrelevant when they may actually have a lot of support in society. We risk blinding ourselves — and our readers, listeners and viewers — to the reality of the world around us.

    And if we think extreme conservative opinions are too far out there to recognize, what about extreme liberal opinions? Or are extremists only on one side?

  4. That’s a fair point, Randy. I guess I viewed it as balanced in the sense that it wasn’t all screaming “the NFL are bigots” but gave nuanced explanations. I’ll confess that I’m not sure what the broad spectrum of opinion looks like on this issue, but the consensus seems to be “they just aren’t ready.”

    There is a broader range of disagreement, for instance, on gays in the military where you have data points that are all over the map and therefore it’s easier to stake out a wider variety of perspectives.

    As I said, I do think his comments in this package made sense even if they weren’t articulated in a PC way and seemed pretty extreme. The larger question for me is in general reporting–as opposed to an array of opinion pieces–how do we deal with the instinct to quote an anti-gay minister regardless of the issue.

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