“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “and that is not being talked about.” You might try telling that to Mike Piazza, the New York Mets catcher and ex-Dodger who last week felt compelled to call a press conference to announce that he is — hold on to your hats — heterosexual.

The farce began when Mets manager Bobby Valentine told Details magazine that he thought professional baseball was probably ready for an openly gay player. This was taken to mean that Valentine was paving the way for one of his players to come out. Suddenly sports-talk shows were buzzing with speculations about who it might be. The leading candidates were Piazza and Roberto Alomar Jr., who are not only single but well-groomed (always a pink flag). The spotlight settled on Piazza when the New York Post‘s gossip columnist Neal Travis did a blind item about a rumored-to-be-gay Mets star who “spends a lot of time with pretty models in clubs.” Piazza is known for doing exactly that, and while you might think such behavior proves he likes women, that only goes to show how naive you are. After all, who do models hang out with? That’s right. Homosexuals.

Although the Piazza rumors made the Chandra Levy case look as weighty as 911, everyone felt the need to chime in, often in amusing ways. Even as business experts justified Piazza‘s press conference as an attempt to “protect his brand” — he is, after all, a $100 million enterprise who can’t afford to be thought gay — the N.Y. Post was firing sportswriter Wallace Matthews for taking an anti-Travis column they‘d killed and publishing it online. “I always knew the paper had no integrity,” wrote Matthews on the SportsJournalists.com Web site. “Now we know it has no balls, either.”

For all their cliched machismo, Matthews’ words did unwittingly point to the psychosexual truth underlying the whole Piazza foofaraw. In a real sense, this was a story about having balls — in particular, our shifting ideas of what it means to be a man.

Nowhere was this more naked than on sports-talk radio, which spent last week in a state of barely suppressed hysteria. I‘ve never heard so many nervous giggles and too-hearty guffaws. ESPN Radio’s suave Dan Patrick broke for a commercial by saying, “Don‘t read Details magazine” — a quip that had his flunkies rupturing themselves with laughter. Meanwhile, Fox Sports’ late-night idiots couldn‘t stop sniggering about the very notion of gays in a locker room. They kept promising an interview with retired Royals pitcher Mark Gubicza that was going to fill us in on how ballplayers would hate having homosexuals around. But when “Gooby” finally came on, he said that he wouldn’t care about a teammate‘s sexual life as long as he performed on the field.

He wasn’t the only one. The Yankees‘ Mike Mussina said it’s okay by him if players come out (sure, he went to Stanford, but still). Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood made a couple of cracks about how real men don‘t wear open-toed sandals, but when asked about having a gay teammate, he became matter-of-fact: “Statistically, there’s one on every team.” Far from being doused in homophobia, Piazza‘s press conference was a model of courteous tolerance. “I’m heterosexual,” he said, then calmly added that there‘s nothing wrong or uncool about being gay. I don’t want to make too much of such sensible statements — today‘s internationalized players constantly slur one another’s sexuality in many different tongues — but judging from their comments, the athletes already know (or at least suspect) who around them is gay. And like it or not, they‘re forced to make some kind of peace with it. The real problem with having a gay teammate, several said, was that the media would never let it drop.

This I don’t doubt, for the people who kept insisting that America couldn‘t handle an openly gay ballplayer were the sports journalists, from the print-world panelists on ESPN’s Sunday-morning The Sports Reporters to radio‘s King of Smack Jim Rome, who sounded afraid of alienating his wiseass audience. It’s ironic. Commentators are forever grousing that today‘s athletes are shallower than they used to be — why can’t Michael Jordan be another Muhammad Ali, why isn‘t Barry Bonds as socially aware as Arthur Ashe? — but listening to Rome prove more resistant to change than some of his callers, I found myself longing for the late Howard Cosell. Instead of telling us that America isn’t ready for gay ballplayers, that old egomaniac would be insisting that it should be. I can just hear him championing anyone with the courage to do for gays what was done for black Americans by “the great Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, of the erstwhile Brooklyn Dah-juzz.”

Of course, one reason we don‘t hear such things is that most of our sportswriters, columnists and broadcasters are still as square as Grampa’s checkerboard. It disturbs them that some of the heroes they celebrate may not fit our still-limited notions of masculinity. (Think of their tireless horror at the gender-bending antics of Dennis Rodman. And he was banging Madonna.) You can partly understand their unease. If professional athletes‘ straight-arrow masculinity is not inviolate, think what that might imply about journalists who devote their lives to watching well-built guys perform, hanging out in locker rooms and inhabiting a world that largely resembles an unironic version of The Man Show.

Yet the Piazza-is-gay brouhaha reveals more about the male psyche than simple homosexual panic. For you can’t be a good sports reporter without first being a fan — you have to love the beauty and grace of athletic action, thrill to the drama and unpredictability of the game. But as British writer Nick Hornby makes clear in his great soccer memoir Fever Pitch, being a fan is a form of permanent adolescence, and a distinctively male one at that, like obsessing over the filing system for your record collection or building your day around watching TV shows as Hugh Grant does in the adaptation of Hornby‘s About a Boy. By fixating on wins and losses or yo-yoing between adoration and hatred — the recent coverage of the Lakers has been positively bipolar — you can create an alternative reality that helps fend off the complex realities of manhood. That’s why so many fans and sportswriters hate hearing about money in sports. That‘s why they still find it hard to admit that Pete Rose was gambling on games. And that’s why the idea of a gay ballplayer threatens not only their attitudes toward masculinity but their whole sense of sports as a refuge from the messy emotional stuff of real life. Once a star the caliber of Piazza (or Shaq!) finally comes out — it‘s bound to happen — this refuge will never be quite the same again.

In Tuesday’s L.A. Times, Patrick Goldstein (whose column is consistently one of the paper‘s highlights) wrote about how The Rock and Vin Diesel represent a new breed of action star whose urban, multicultural brand of masculinity cuts across all races (and beyond: Diesel has a cult gay following). Of course, such muscled-up masculinity is hardly new in Hollywood — it wasn’t so long ago that Stallone and Schwarzenegger ruled the box office — but it‘s all the more striking in an era when so many of our younger stars are overgrown boys. For every Russell Crowe (an Australian import), there’s a Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Will Smith and, of course, eternally young Tom Cruise, who‘s spent much of the last 15 years getting the Piazza treatment. Although these boyish actors are considered heartthrobs, what’s striking is how neutered they seem compared to the ‘60s generation of stars — Nicholson, Beatty, Redford and Hoffman — all of whom carried a sexual tang. Even Woody Allen was all about getting laid. One reason Diesel seems bound for a fresh kind of superstardom is that he does something that Sly and Arnold and Clint never could: He brings more than a whiff of carnality to the idea of being a badass.

Diesel is almost the opposite of Hugh Grant, who has spent years serving up a version of masculinity so effetely English that it leaves you begging he won’t take off his shirt during the love scenes. He is the movies‘ current icon of aristocratic charm — cute, dithery, shockingly sexless — and one great pleasure of About a Boy is the way it deflates that particular fantasy (and not only by lopping off his forelocks). Rather than suggest that we all ought to swoon before Grant’s posh mannerisms and winning smile, the film shows that these things are an empty shell — he‘s the good-looking guy you date once, then dump because he cares too much about his shirt. Grant is well aware of this, of course (he’s one of our smartest actors), and clearly delights in the chance to deconstruct an image that has obviously been a velvet prison. After all, if you‘re the kind of guy who’ll pay for blowjobs from a black chick on the Sunset Strip, it‘s humiliating to have to keep saying “Oh, bugger” as if it were the most adorable thing in the world.

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