Culpepper on why he wrote about being gay: Realized now would be a good time

If you’re like me, you wanted to stand up and cheer after reading Chuck Culpepper’s column at the Sports on Earth site last week.

Culpepper wrote about thanking Brendan Ayanbadejo for comments he made in support of gay people during Super Bowl week. As he talked to the Baltimore Ravens linebacker following the game, you could feel his internal uneasiness before he finally blurted out the words.

He wrote:

“You don’t know me,” I said, and he grinned at that, “but you have done a lot for me,” and his eyes told me he knew what I meant. “And I just want to tell you that I am so grateful. You are a good man.”

Whew. There. I had spit it out. With reasonable concision, even. As we let go of our handshake, he said simply and unemotionally, “It’s the right thing to do, plain and simple,” whereupon I mustered a closing, “Thank you.”

Obviously, it was a significant moment in Culpepper’s life. In a Q/A, he sheds some light about his decision to write the column and what he has experienced during his career as a sportswriter.

Was this the first time you wrote about being gay?  Were there other times you considered writing about it?

I mentioned it in the acknowledgements of my soccer-in-England book, published in the U.K. in 2007 and the U.S. in 2008. It’s funny, but it could have been part of that book, because that book was first-person, until a wise soul at the David Black literary agency advised me: If you’re writing a book about one thing (in this case, English soccer), don’t distract people with another sweeping topic. (She provided an example of how such a thing had sideswiped another book.) And then, when I did interviews for the various BBC outlets for the book, the publishing PR reps thought I shouldn’t bring the gay angle to promote a book that wasn’t really about the subject at all. But otherwise, yes, I have considered writing it for about umpteen years.

When did you realize that you had to write this?

Even in that moment with (Brendan Ayanbadejo), I very well might have just balked and walked on, figuring I’d thanked him another time, which would be like me. I hail from a smallish Virginia town (Suffolk) where we sort of got conditioned not to put ourselves out there in any way, and I have spent life gradually shedding that impulse. So it surprised me that I did speak up and thank him, and I think I realized then that now would be a good time.

But I had a major guide in this. I rode to and from that AFC title game with Steve Buckley, the Boston Herald sports columnist who wrote his version of this column two Januarys ago. I also talked to him extensively in January, especially at the marvelous Diesel coffeehouse at Davis Square. And while he’s a firm believer that this should be everybody’s personal decision, he also encouraged me based on the volumes of responses he received from people who said his column had helped them. That’s the ethic you hear a lot these days, that there’s an added responsibility to lend your name, especially given the publicized stories of teen-agers struggling.

Could you have seen never writing about it?

Yes, and it probably would have made me very sad by age 70.

What in particular struck you about the reaction to the column?

I have lived recent days in a torrent of kindness that has floored me and instructed me as to how briskly the perception of this issue has changed. If the kind words keep up, I might have to start liking myself though I’ll try to avoid that mistake.

Has being gay ever been an issue for you as a sportswriter, either in dealing with sports editors and/or athletes?

With athletes, no, but largely because of my wanderlust and nomadism, which never seem to wane and seem only to heighten. There were 3 1/2 years in Los Angeles, then one in Chicago, a winter in Pittsburgh, nine years in Lexington (Kentucky), 2 1/2 in Portland (Oregon), 3 1/2 in New York, three in London, four months in Paris, two years in Abu Dhabi/Dubai. When Steve Buckley wrote his column, he got meaningful calls and texts of support from Bobby Orr, several Red Sox, Robert Kraft, people who knew him for years. Very few athletes have anything approaching that familiarity with me.

With editors, also no. There was (and is) a prince of a human being in Lexington, Gene Abell, who knew about it, but we never discussed it, and the same with Dennis Peck at the Oregonian. When I went to interview at Newsday in 2002, Sandy Keenan brought it up that very first day and gave me a great sense of comfort. The great Randy Harvey at the Los Angeles Times and the great Robert Mashburn in Abu Dhabi always conversed with me it openly on the subject. And now my Sports On Earth bosses Larry Burke and Steve Madden, there they are, extremely supportive and aware from the job interview on, a whole new world in motion, a world I frankly never foresaw.

There was, however, a strange byproduct way back when. Back in the 1990s, sometimes Gene would call me and say on my answering machine (answering machines!), “We need to talk,” or something like that, and straightaway I would feel a sense of dread, that I might be done, finished, because of this. And invariably when I called he would say something like, “We’re doing a special (basketball) section and need you to write a column,” something about the job itself. A dear friend in New York, straight guy, once told me, “I grieve for you when I hear that.” And it goes to show how we can internalize loony things, because that recurrent notion was nothing shy of loony, because with Gene, we’re talking about one of the kindest, most decent people ever to pop out of the birth canal.

Being a gay male in athletics still seems to be a taboo, especially for a team sport. Do you foresee that perspective ever changing? Do you foresee when it isn’t an issue to be gay and play for a pro football team?

I would have said no 10 years ago, probably no five years ago, and yes now. I would agree now with my great friend Gwen Knapp, who has said for years that the athletes are actually ahead of the media’s perception of the athletes. But especially in returning to the country after six years, and from places such as the UK where this issue is long since all but settled culturally, the speed of the changes of the perceptions of the issue here stun me. I never quite believed Andrew Sullivan when he used to write that once gay people could marry, the United States would become more American, but I feel now what he meant.

You are a couple days removed from writing the column. How do you feel about it now?

You know how you long wonder about doing something, anything, feel afraid of it sometimes through the years, unafraid other times, but then you finally do it and you’re no longer acquainted with the former you who wondered and sometimes worried about it, and you wonder what all the self-imposed suspense was about? Yeah. While covering a round-the-world sailboat race in 2011, I jumped off the back of a yacht in Cape Town, South Africa, to be collected by a trailing inflatable boat, in a tradition for visitors when the boats make their way to sea. I jumped into the frigid, shark-infested South Atlantic, and two sharks came up to me and I stared them down and they left.

OK, that last part is not true, but it was exhilarating beyond exhilarating, and it reminded me of the old Eleanor Roosevelt line: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I’m not sure this column scared me anymore, not so much, but I guess it once did, so maybe it counts a little. But really, Eleanor: Every day?

Anything else?

The 2001 Wimbledon men’s singles final was one of the most magical days in the business. Rain had pushed it to Monday, and the All England Club let in the general public, and Centre Court was unusually rowdy as Pat Rafter played Goran Ivanisevic in a five-set barnburner and the Australian fans bobbed their inflatable kangaroos. We reporters pretty much loved Goran (and Rafter, too, in a different way), because Goran was great and funny in press conferences. And there was a genuine feeling for him when he won because we pretty much had seen his decade-long struggle to get there, his battle against himself and against his own addled brain that could take him completely out of the match and pretty much off the premises at any point. When he wept on the court, it was hard not to get choked up.

Then, after all this, at the end of the press conference his wiring short-circuited again, and he suddenly burst out complaining about a line judge whom he said “looked like a faggot.” The room boomed in laughter not out of homophobia but out of the absurdity, and while I mentioned it in my column, I mentioned it only three-fourths of the way down, buried beneath all the description of the great day. I sometimes want that column back, not to rant, but certainly to lampoon.


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