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Mystics Give Big Issue the Kiss-Off

By Mike Wise
Monday, July 27, 2009

"Why don't they have a KissCam at Mystics games?" a young friend asked last week, which preceded an awkward pause and an even more awkward answer.

Really, why doesn't the inclusive WNBA franchise in the nation's capital, of all places, send their video cameramen and camerawomen to find unsuspecting couples in the stands during timeouts and capture their mugs for all of Verizon Center's crowd to see? And wait for the couple's reaction, which usually involves a polite, if awkward, peck on the lips.

Just like they do at NBA games and other sporting events in which the participants are men.

"We got a lot of kids here," Sheila Johnson, the Mystics' managing partner, said when asked last week at a game. "We just don't find it appropriate."

Understood is that women's professional basketball has two major fan bases: dads and daughters, and lesbians. The KissCam issue, frivolous on its surface, puts the effort to cater to both audiences squarely at odds.

Devon Goldsmith, returning to her seat for last Thursday's game between Washington and Chicago, understands Johnson's rationale -- begrudgingly.

"It's one thing for Daddy and Mommy to be kissing, but Mommy kissing Mommy?" said Goldsmith, a 26-year-old systems analyst from Silver Spring. She also happens to play linebacker for the D.C. Divas semipro women's football team and is openly gay. "I don't think people are ready for it now.

"I can see people at the box office, saying, 'I want my money back.' You don't want to curb the fan base by giving something they're not ready for."

This is a seminal, scary time for women's professional sports. Ten years after Brandi Chastain's ab-crunching moment in the women's World Cup ushered in a new era of empowerment, less than half of the LPGA Tour's 29 events have secured sponsorship for next year. Though attendance numbers are up in Washington, the league can barely pull in an average of 8,000 people per game and many of its arenas hold 20,000.

It's understandable that a financially shaky league is outright terrified it could alienate a chunk of its fan base if two same-sex people shared a chaste kiss on a video scoreboard.

Hello, gay and lesbian jokes. Goodbye, heterosexual family ticket plans. Goodbye, progress.

We get it.

But how long does a league keep some of its most loyal and longtime customers in the closet? How long should any historically persecuted group keep quiet when the Mystics take sponsorship dollars from a company noted for discrimination against gays?

Ranked with 584 other businesses in 2009, Exxon Mobil Corporation was just one of two surveyed by the Human Rights Campaign's corporate quality index to be given a zero rating -- out of 100. (The other was Perot Systems Corp.) When Exxon acquired Mobil a decade ago, it removed explicit protections for employees based on sexual orientation from the company's anti-discrimination policies. Despite shareholder pressure, the company hasn't budged.

"It bothered us quite a lot," Judith Schaeffer said, sitting in her usual baseline seats by the Mystics' bench with Eileen Ryan, whom she is married to and has been with for 31 years. On their blog DC BasketCases, which they describe as "a friendly asylum for a couple of crazy D.C. area women's basketball fans," they rued the Exxon sponsorship deal signed by Johnson in April.

Said Ryan: "I think it was very offensive to a lot of people in this fan base. I understand it's hard to keep a business like this afloat right now. But I found it incongruous that the Mystics were bragging about supporting a corporation like that."

She added, "The league is very quiet about its lesbian fan base."

When asked through a spokesman, WNBA President Donna Orender put out a blanket statement: The league leaves KissCam-type decisions to individual arenas and franchises.

It's easy to empathize with Johnson's stance on issues of taste and money.

WNBA games have large audiences of children. If a lesbian couple smooches before 10,000 on camera, do you necessarily want to have that conversation with your child at that moment?

And who is Johnson to turn down sponsorship dollars when so few are available? When your principles and beliefs supersede financial health, how is a defunct team and league going to help promote the very values the WNBA espouses to little girls?

"They gotta understand: I got to get some money in here," Johnson said. "That's the bottom line. And I have no problem with Exxon. Despite all the political issues with Exxon, Exxon needs us and we need them. Any other team would take them in a heartbeat."

The WNBA has indeed done a better job appreciating its diverse audience without offending gay people. As Cathy Nelson, the Human Rights Campaign's vice president, said in a phone interview, "Sheila and the Mystics have been nothing but supportive in our mind, showing up at all our dinners, events, even bringing the whole team once."

And it's true you can't look at every single issue through the prism of your personal agenda.

"We wouldn't broadcast on our Jumbotron about abortion issues because of the religious and political conflicts it would cause," said Lindsey Harding, the team's point guard. "It's a similar, sensitive subject. We don't want to put anything out there to turn down certain fans."

But doesn't the KissCam question distill where we really are? A rite of spring in the NBA -- where couples of mixed creeds, ethnicities and ages are suckered by peer pressure into puckering -- is somehow taboo in the WNBA.

On the Jumbotron at Wizards games, couples on their first date sometimes balk at kissing, which generates laughter. Other times couples are ready for the lens -- passionate kissing and theatrical groping, which usually brings the building to a crescendo of hilarity.

Funny, huh, not one same-sex couple has ever been shown on that screen.

"The truth," Mystics rookie Marissa Coleman said, "is that I don't think the things that might happen could be accepted by a lot of people."

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