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Madden: Stewart rumor was ... just a rumor

Saturday, January 05, 2002

"That rumor wasn't true, bro."

With that quote in ESPN The Magazine, Kordell Stewart finally addressed in public a rumor that had swept the nation and become an oft-repeated part of local lore. Stewart denied that he's gay.

It's kind of ironic Stewart quashed that allegation now, because the rumor had all but disappeared. Hey, you don't suppose the rumor is dead because Stewart is playing well this season, do you? At any rate, anyone with a brain had deduced that the rumor was false about 10 seconds after hearing it.

There was supposedly a police report that detailed Stewart "being caught" indulging his alternative lifestyle in public. Ridiculous. I guarantee such a report would have found its way into a newspaper's hands. If Stewart had a former homosexual lover out there, said lover would have likely come forward and cashed in with the National Enquirer. There is a lot more money to be made exposing a story like this than there is to be made covering it up.

So, the rumor never had any logical possibility of being true. You should have known that when you heard it involved an easily recognizable figure having gay sex in a public place. Not the best way to stay in the closet, which a gay professional athlete would have to do. The locker rooms and grandstands of the American sporting world aren't ready for a known gay athlete in team sports. They might never be.

Stewart has addressed the rumor and denied it. That should be the final nail in the rumor's coffin.

But where did the rumor come from?

It obviously started in Pittsburgh. The rumor is perhaps the biggest indictment of what a cruel town this can be, with overtones that are not only homophobic but racist, too.

A brief stint by the late Joe Gilliam aside, Stewart was the Steelers' first black starting quarterback. After a scintillating 1997 season, Stewart committed the sin of being the Steelers' first bad black starting quarterback. He is enjoying great success now. But that doesn't alter his pitiful performance the previous three campaigns. He might be the best all-around quarterback in the NFL right now. But from 1998-2000, he might have been the worst.

Pittsburgh's great unwashed were faced with a dilemma. They didn't like the idea of having a black quarterback in the first place, never mind one who stinks. But while racist opinions haven't changed here in Pittsburgh, racist behavior has been toned down. It's no longer appropriate to stand up in a football stadium and yell N-bombs when the quarterback throws a pass 10 yards over a receiver's head.

So you whisper that he's gay. It's no longer considered scandalous for a black man to sleep with a white woman. So you accuse him of sleeping with another man.

Of course, local fans booed Terry Bradshaw, too, so it's not totally a black thing. But you can't dismiss racism as a primary motivation for Pittsburgh's persecution of Stewart.

Consider this quote from Stewart's father in ESPN The Magazine: "I heard the booing [in Three Rivers Stadium]. But I couldn't say much because I'm a black man there in the stands all by myself. I didn't want the hell beaten out of me." Doesn't sound like he considers Pittsburgh unprejudiced.

Disagree? Then prove me wrong. How did this vicious rumor start? How did it become so widespread? Stewart isn't gay. So why did so many people say, almost hopefully, that he was?

At any rate, the rumor is history. Stewart is playing well, racking up a hat trick of recent honors: Steelers MVP, Pro Bowl quarterback and Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year. Stewart mentioned a girlfriend in a recent Post-Gazette interview, which was a good public relations move if not a calculated one.

You wonder what kind of emotional scars he carries around. It must have been terrible, having to live with the whispers. Having to address the issue with his teammates. Stewart says he has no hard feelings. That's what Bradshaw says, too, but he rarely comes back to Pittsburgh.

I wouldn't blame Stewart if he despised Pittsburgh. If he loathed the city that booed him, beered him and questioned his sexuality. But I don't think he does, and I don't think he will. Stewart might take your cheers with a grain of salt -- and he should -- but I don't think he hates you. I'm not sure Stewart has that in him.

Stewart is having a terrific year, but I'm still not convinced he's going to be a terrific quarterback in the long run. Stewart needs to follow up this season with another good season before I believe that.

But Stewart has convinced me that he's a good man. To handle everything he has handled and to overcome everything he has overcome is a tribute to his heart, to his character, and to his soul.

But what about the people who spread the rumor about Stewart? Who laughed and joked about it? Who repeated a baseless accusation until it became larger than life? What does that say about their hearts? About their character? About their souls?

Stewart gets the last laugh. Those jerks just gave him the opportunity to prove what a man he really is.


Mark Madden is the host of a talk show from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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