The US sports industry is twice as big as the American automobile industry, and 10 times larger than the movie industry. Clearly, size matters.
Those figures come from Ted Rybka, and he should know. Since mid-September, he has served as Director of Sports Media for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). For 20 years, that organization has advocated for fair, accurate, and inclusive representation of GLBT people and events in the media. But until very recently—the day Rybka was hired, in fact—GLAAD was not much different from mainstream America: It pretty much ignored the connection between sports and sexuality. They are strongly enmeshed, of course.
“The sports media has a huge impact on how Americans live and interact,” Rybka says. “It’s crucial to how we perceive ourselves and others. With 24-hour channels, talk radio, and the Internet, sports is everywhere.”
GLAAD has dabbled in athletics before—it participated in a GLBT sports conference in Boston, and reacted to antigay comments on sports shows—but Rybka’s new position signals a strong, ongoing commitment to this important segment of society.
Rybka notes that his charge goes beyond responding to homophobic rhetoric: “We need to get stories of GLBT athletes, coaches, referees, and administrators out in the media. Part of my job is letting reporters know I’m a resource. We want them to add gay angles to stories they’re writing, and seek out gay perspectives they may not have thought of.”
Rybka already has begun that process, by reaching out to reporters. That program includes a Media Reference Guide, suggesting terminology to use (and to avoid), and also offering links to community resources.
According to Rybka, the reaction has been “really good. People appreciate knowing we’re here, and that we’ve got a program for them.”
Knowledge of gay issues among sports reporters varies, and Rybka observes, “Some of them have gay friends or family members. Others have absolutely no experience with gay people. But most of them realize it’s an area that should be covered.”
Rybka explains that the issue of gays in sports transcends professionals: “There are college, high school, and amateur athletics, too. People at all those levels are affected by what they see, hear, and read in the media.”
Contrasting public perceptions of GLBT athletics issues to what GLAAD found when it started 20 years ago, Rybka points out, “In some ways, we’ve come a long way, but sports may be a more difficult world than, say, entertainment. Some voices have spoken out, but there are nowhere near enough stories being told. Our challenge is to help create change—not just in the minds of athletes, but anyone who watches or plays games at any level.”
Rybka is a superb choice for the job. After graduating from an all-male Jesuit high school in Baltimore, he joined the Army as a Russian linguist, and served in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. Pursuing his passion for sports journalism, he earned a master’s in mass communications at Arizona State University. He got a job at an all-sports radio station, but found the atmosphere to be both homophobic and misogynistic.
As Rybka recalls, “If you were not a straight white male, you got picked on every day. It came from reporters, on-air talent, producers—everyone.”
Rybka was out as a gay man, and knew he had to escape that environment. He began writing for Echo Magazine, an Arizona GLBT publication. A year ago, he joined two gay rugby teammates who were starting a new magazine, Sports Out Loud.
But Rybka soon heard that GLAAD was looking for its first-ever sports-media director, and knew his skills suited that job. So far, the experience has been fulfilling. He realized the importance of the position even before he began. Apartment-hunting in New York, he told his broker about his title. The man looked puzzled.
“What do sports have to do with GLAAD?” he asked.
“When I told him, he instantly got it,” Rybka relates.
Two weeks later, his new landlord asked the exact same question. Once again, when Rybka explained, the man understood.
“They see the value in what we’re doing,” Rybka comments. “That makes me see how crucial this work is.”
Rybka still is feeling his way, defining his new position, but he loves the process. So, he is asked, a year from now, what story would he most like to have seen covered?
“How the LGBT community is better accepted in the sports world,” Rybka responds. “For me, it’s not necessarily about one star athlete coming out. It’s about generating real change in the entire sports community.”
And what are the odds of that happening
“Hmm,” Rybka pauses. “I don’t want to guess. It’s a great challenge, but if we meet it head-on, we’ll be successful.”
Knute Rockne could not have said it better.
Dan Woog, a journalist, educator, soccer coach, and gay activist, is the author of the “Jocks” series of books on gay male athletes. Visit his Web site at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication, or at OutField@qsyndicate.com.