Ever since my time penning for ESPN.com’s Page 2 back in the mid-2000s, L.Z. Granderson has been one of my favorite sports columnists. To begin with, the man knows his sports and can flat-out write. Second, he doesn’t take positions unless they’re positions he believes in. Third, he’s a gay African-American.
I know … I know—what difference does that make? Judge all equally and blah, blah, blah. What I mean is that, in a profession long dominated by boring ol’ straight whites, L.Z. comes at things with a unique life viewpoint. His takes are unique because, in the world we inhabit, he is unique. Believe me, it matters.
I digress. Along with working as a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine, L.Z. contributes weekly pieces to CNN.com (he recently wrote an absolutely breathtaking piece titled ‘Ted Nugent should be in jail.’ I couldn’t agree more). The 2009 winner of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Award for online journalism, L.Z. is—in my opinion—a pioneer is a genre (sports journalism) desperately seeking pioneers.
Here, L.Z. talks race, sexuality, Steve Nash, Kevin Love, his life as a long-suffering Detroit Lions fan and why, to him, Rick Santorum’s opinions matter. He is a regular Tweeter who can be followed here.
L.Z. the Quaz awaits …
JEFF PEARLMAN: L.Z., I’m a big fan of your writing, and—particularly—your honesty. You’re blunt and forceful, and you attack issues of homophobia in very constructive ways. Hence, I’m interested in your particular background. Where are you from? When did you first realize you were gay? And how accepting was your family?
L.Z. GRANDERSON: First, thanks Jeff so much for the kind words man, and as I’m sure you know, I’m a fan of yours as well—especially the CNN pieces. The one about finding the rude e-mailer was awesome. Soooo, LZ, the Gay, where do I begin, hmmm …
Well, first I was born and raised in Detroit though I spent many of my summers growing up with my mother’s side of the family in rural Mississippi, not far from where Emmett Till was murdered and where “The Help” was filmed. This makes me both a bit country and a bit ghetto, which, if you ever visited the black neighborhoods in Detroit, you’d know is not that unusual. The auto industry boom attracted a lot of folks from down south to Detroit. My mother was a Civil Rights activist registering black people to vote before fleeing up north to Chicago after being chased by the KKK. She knew Medgar Evers, who was born not too far from my family’s land. She marched with Dr. King. So you can imagine how many stories I heard about the struggle for equality and then juxtaposing that with the world I saw in Detroit. That’s part of the reason why my worldview is as diverse as it is—I have an intimate understanding of present day urban and yesteryear rural, country music and hip hop, red and blue states, etc.
You talk about my honesty in my work, well I that get from my mom, who at the age of 65, takes yoga, Zumba and still talks about kicking somebody’s ass. Her zest for life, love of people, and frankness is something most of our family has. You have a problem with someone, you say it to their face. When some relatives had a problem with me getting divorced and coming out, they were met with a big “so what” by my mom and the other relatives who really didn’t care. And because of that, there’s no drama about my sexual orientation or the sexual orientation of the other gay members in my family. I bring my partner to family functions, my son has known all of his life his dad is gay and really we’re all too busy laughing, cooking and eating to be bothered with judging each other. We have interracial couples, Jehovah Witnesses, Jewish people, all kinds of folks in our family and there’s just no real drama. I’m fortunate, I know. Actually, the person who had the biggest problem with me was me. I struggled early because I didn’t really see anyone who was gay that resembled anything like me: black, an athlete, a closeted nerd who ran the streets with the wrong crowd on occasion. When I got to college I became a fundamentalist Christian, but I always was aware of my same sex attraction. I tried to pray it away all through my marriage but by graduate school, I was in the coming out. It was hard for everyone, only because my ex and I had been in each other’s lives since sophomore year in high school. But we made it through with love and I think our 15-year-old is the proof of that love.
J.P.: I’m a white Jewish guys. And, generally, in the reformed Jewish community, homosexuality is greeted with a shrug. You’re African-American, and the whole black-gay dynamic seems much more complicated. Why do you think so many African-Americans seem to struggle so much with acceptance of gay rights, especially considering the Civil Rights battles of not all that long ago? And are things changing?
L.Z.G.: The struggle isn’t with skin color as much as it is with the role of religion. A lot of evangelical church’s teach homosexuality is a sin and so when you know how important the church was to the Civil Rights Movement, then you can see why it is hard in some circles to embrace the GLBT community. It’s hard for people to accept the vehicle that led to so much good in the community is wrong about something. The thing is, the vehicle, the Bible, the church is constantly being massaged to fit the needs of the messenger. Once scripture was used to endorse slavery, then scripture was used to abolish it. Same for women’s rights. Whenever someone comes at me with that vibe I just remind them that Dr. King’s right hand man, Bayard Rustin, was openly gay. Rustin was the person who introduced Dr. King to the teachings of Gandhi and was the main organizer of the transformative march on Washington. So if the Reverend who happened to be the face of the movement loved a gay man as his brother, and if the movement is greatly indebted to that love and friendship between the two, then why do we as a community feel comfortable dishonoring the memory of that bond. Because at the end of the day, that’s what using the Bible to justify ostracizing gay people is doing—dishonoring the work King and Rustin did together so that we could have freedom today.
J.P.: Of all the black gay sportswriters I know, you’re easily in my Top, well, one. I’ve covered sports a long time. And, generally, it’s a pretty slow-moving world, socially. How do athletes respond to you being gay? Have any ever hit with bigoted comments? Any ever commend you?
L.Z.G.: Jeff, you know, if you’re a columnist and you don’t get hate mail, then you’re not a very good columnist. That’s all part of it. Do I get horrible email from readers filled with hateful remarks. Yes, all of the time. But I don’t think I’m unique in that. I just happen to be gay, so a lot of my emails contain words like “faggot”, “AIDS” and “Leviticus” but women get called things, straight white men get called things, etc. But I have never had an athlete say anything bad about me to my face and I would like to think because I am fair. I don’t write horrible things about someone just to get readers to click on me. I try to share my view of the world strongly, with entertainment but not crossing the line of decency. I need to know if I saw that person the next day, I wouldn’t be ashamed. One of my mentors, Gary Bond, taught me that. Today, some of the people I like and care about most are athletes I’ve gotten to know over the years. I don’t write about them anymore because I feel there is a conflict there, but we have a great time– not as ESPN guy and athlete or gay guy and straight guy but just brothers. Because of that, my view of homophobia in sports is not as doomsday oriented as some other people’s views are.
J.P.: Do you think, within the next decade, we’ll have an open active player in one of the four major American team sports? And, as many have suggested, would the first guy have to be a superstar?
L.Z.G.: I think the first openly gay guy would either be near retirement or yanked out by the paparazi, social media, etc. I don’t see anyone in their prime doing it only because athletes in their prime are typically focused on being the best and limiting all possible distractions from that goal. I qualify a media circus as a distraction. But a guy on the decline who happens to be comfortable in their own skin may be so inclined to share that part of his life in public way. It’s either that or one of these dudes is going to be sloppy and hook up with the wroooooooong guy.
J.P.: I’m tired of sports. Not all sports—but modern sports. The clichés, the repeated lines, the media-athlete animosity. You and I have been in the biz a similar amount of time. Are you not jaded? Do you still have the love?
L.Z.G.: It’s funny you should bring that up because I’ve long said that when my generation of athletes retire, so will I. Not from writing but from covering sports on a weekly basis as I do now. I’m not sure what the cutoff line is, in other words, which guy is the guy, but I do know I need to keep things fresh for me from a creative perspective. I started at ESPN the same year Lebron started in the league, so maybe he’s the one. I don’t know. It could also be Rafa. I know what you speak of but I’m not tired of sports. I still ball several times a week, play tennis a few times a week and take pride in still being a fairly good athlete myself. And my son is becoming a helluva athlete in his own right in high school. I’ll never stop being a gym rat and a fan, but I may need to step away for a little bit to recharge by batteries as a sportswriter.
J.P.: You wrote a pretty scathing CNN.com column a few months back, blaming Rick Santorum for spreading homophobia across America. I actually disagree. I think Santorum is a tool, but the people listening to him probably already hated gays. Why am I wrong here?
L.Z.G.: Why do you have to be wrong? I think we’re both right. Santorum has a platform that he uses to spread homophobia but each of us have a platform to inject anything we want into the world. However big your circle of influence is, you have the ability to shape someone’s view on a topic. So they’re both responsible for spreading homophobia and I’d like to think we’re responsible for spreading tolerance.
J.P.: When it comes to gays, what do you think people are afraid of? What I mean is, many athletes don’t want gays in the locker room with them? But, why? Like, what do you think fosters that fear?
L.Z.G.: Misogyny. They’re afraid gay men are going to start looking at and talking about them in the same manner they look at and talk about women and it scares the shit out of them. The thought of being naked and being viewed by another man in such a carnal, dominating way is unnerving. It threatens their sense of manhood because they’ve equated manhood with who they sleep with. In actuality sleeping with women just makes you a heterosexual male. Society has a lot of heterosexual males who are very far from being a man. And we have a lot of homosexual males who are the epitome of manhood– tough, disciplined, responsible, strong.
J.P.: Is it harder being black or gay?
L.Z.G.: It’s harder being a Lions fan. Those other two are easy by comparison. No seriously, they both have their joys and they both have their challenges but I’ve been both my entire life and I can’t tell you which part of my being is hardest. There are not a lot of gay sports journalists but if you’ve been to a non NBA press box and you’ll see there are not a lot of black ones either.
L.Z.G.: My greatest moment came from seeing John Eligon being hired by the New York Times. John was an intern at the Grand Rapids Press. I wasn’t his supervisor, in fact, I was just a cub myself, but I tried to be as helpful to him as possible. Encourage him, stuff like that. I ran into him at NABJ and he had grown his locks and was working for the Times and I was just so happy for him. He reached his dream. I don’t know how much or how little of a role I played in his development but I know I didn’t screw him up. I know he greeted me with a hug and that sense of full circle felt awesome. The lowest also came at the Grand Rapids Press. I was a manning the late night desk, it was nearly time for me to go home when an accident was being reported on the police scanner. It was a head on collision. Long story short– in my haste to finish the blurb and get to bed I made a mistake. I faulted the wrong driver in the fatal head-on crash. I felt horrible but not nearly as bad as the already grieving family. My editor made me drive out to the family to apologize for the error. It was more than an hour drive there and I cried all the way back. It was then I understood the responsibility of journalism and took the job a lot more seriously.
J.P.: I don’t hate ESPN, but I hate how ESPN has turned so many writers into buffoons. The screaming, the barking, the Skip Bayless-ization of once-dignified scribes. Am I wrong? Or is this what sports media has become?
L.Z.G.: You show me a network that does not feature spirited debates as part of its programming and I’ll show you a dying network. The old saying was “if it bleeds it leads” now it’s “if there’s hate it rates”. Same concept: bad news, tension, drama this has always driven readership and viewership to a degree. Is it worse now than yesterday? I’m sure it feels that way because how we consume media has varied greatly from the 6pm news with Walter Cronkite. And the proliferation of non-scripted television has also contributed to this screaming and barking you’re talking about. But I would argue that element of media programming and consumption has been a part of pop culture long before ESPN was even thought of.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH L.Z. GRANDERSON
• Five amazing things to do in the amazing city of Grand Rapids: Honestly, we’re not an amazing city. We’re an average mid-sized city in the midwest. We have good hardworking people but the best thing about Grand Rapids is that it is relatively easy to live here and it’s easy because we’re pretty ordinary. We’re dominated by fast food chains and strip malls. We’re nice, we don’t have a lot of traffic. We’re close to Lake Michigan but we’re not amazing.
• Rank in order: Turkey bacon, David Volek, Joel Youngblood, Michael Anthony, farting, Judge Judy, Celine Dion, strawberry pancakes, your cell phone, Tommy Shaw, the Bible: Turkey bacon, the Bible, my cell phone, farting, Tommy Shaw, Joel Youngblood, Michael Anthony, David Volek, Celine Dion, strawberry pancakes, Judge Judy.
• Ten words or less: Why are newspapers dying?: Too many non-web savvy men making web decisions.
• If someone said, “You need to run 50 miles right now—without walking—or we cut off both your ears,” could you do it?: I’m sorry, I can’t hear you…someone cut off both of my ears.
• We give you 500 major league at bats this season. What do you hit?: The bottle, likely Jack Daniels. I sure as hell won’t be hitting the ball.
• Marijuana—legal or illegal, and why?: Illegal because that’s the law … in this country. And that’s about all I’m going to say about that …
• Will Barack Obama win the election? And what will the margin of victory/defeat be?: Way, way, way too early to say. It all depends on the first debate between him and Romney. It really will be his only chance to convince Independents he made the right decisions. If he wins the first debate, he wins with 52-55 percent of vote.
• Five coolest athletes you’ve ever covered: Grant Hill, Roger Federer, David Beckham, Steve Nash, Kevin Love.
• Five jerkiest athletes you’ve ever covered: Oliver Miller, Glenn Robinson, Matt Leinart … that’s about it. Again, I’ve been lucky.
• Six guys walk into a bar … : The Secret Service at it again, huh?