"Whether you're homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual or asexual, it's nobody's business what you do behind closed doors as long as you don't hurt anybody and you don't offend anybody in public." -- Martina Navratilova
The sensational press from several continents has decended on the women's tennis tour, seeking the kiss-and-tell stories and steamy gossip, following tour matriarch Billie Jean King's admission last week that she had a homosexual affair with her former secretary.
Players, officials and camp followers have been inundated with phone calls and entreaties to "tell all," many from publications that feature juicy headlines about celebrities. These peepholes on the famous and infamous are eager, and in some cases willing to pay, for tales of King's relationship wtih Marilyn Barnett and other tour secrets of the boudoir, preferably with lesbian overtones.
The National Enquirer has been typically dogged in its pursuit of such news. It reportedly offered Barnett $25,000 for more than 100 letters King wrote to her. King this week won a temporary restraining order barring publication of the missives, which she says she wrote "with the intent and understanding that they were and would remain forever private and confidential."
The New York Post has expanded the King affair into a "lesbian scandal shaking women's tennis" (the paper's phrase) with a series of stories.
Insiders say, as King does, that they never have seen a woman tennis player attempt to impose homosexual preferences on another. Nevertheless, some of the stories which have appeared in the past week have implied that there are aggressive gays on the tour and one tabloid appears ready to exploit a vulgar "beware of what could happen to your little girl" angle.
"From the first day it was brought up, the National Enquirer people were crawling around here," Pam Shriver, 18, of Lutherville, Md., said last weekend from Orlando, Fla., where she was playing in the women's Tournament of Champions. "I was told they were trying to get a story from the parents of a couple of the young players, specifically (15-year-old Andrea) Jaeger and myself. I called home immediately and told my mom and and dad if someone calls, just don't say anything. I found out somebody had already called."
Shriver and several others also said that the National Enquirer had offered as much as $5,000 to players willing to talk about lesbianism on the tour. A spokesman for the tabloid referred calls to its public relations firm, Rogers and Associates, in Los Angeles, which said, "We won't comment on that." Executive editor Michael Hoy was unavailable.
"Okay, Billie Jean had this affair, but how many people knew about it, really?" said Wendy Turnbull."If there are any homosexual relationships on the tour, no one really knows for sure who they are."
"People might have suspicions about one or two people, but they don't know who they are because they're not open about it. And I think if they're not hurting anyone else, as long as everyone's happy, that's fine. I mean, happiness is so hard to find in this world, and if you can find happiness with someone, no matter what sex they are, then good luck to you."
"I've never seen or heard of any player overtly or indiscreetly approaching anyone else. I don't think that's a problem at all," said Susan B. Adams, editor of World Tennis magazine. "The women on the tour are a very private bunch. I think it's ludicrous to insinuate that anyone is corrupting children."
The media circus began almost as soon as Barnett, 32, filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court last Tuesday, seeking property and lifetime support from King and her husband in a novel "galimony" suit, the latest spinoff of California's Marvin vs. Marvin "palimony" decision.
The "gay witch hunt," as one player indignantly referred to the invasion of reporters, intensified Friday when King, after initially calling Barnett's allegations "untrue and unfounded," called a press conference and admitted the affair. She denied promising any property or support and termed the liason with Barnett "a mistake."
"I'll tell you, it's been quite a few days here," said Shriver, echoing the reaction of many woman players to the sudden glare of leering attention focused on the women's tour. "I didn't realize at first how big a story this is. It's huge, isn't it? I guess people are going to be all around, trying to find a story, trying to find out what else is going on."
All this is unfortunate, but it is unlikely to be calamitous. The women's tour has survived controversial disclosures before with its sponsors, spectators and special appeal intact. Notable were King's acknowledgement in 1972 that she had had an abortion the previous year, and the emergence in 1976 of Renee Richards, formerly Dr. Richard Raskind, who would become the first player to compete in the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills as both a male and a female.
"Women's tennis has survived a lot of problems in the past 10 years, and survived them very well," said Jerry Diamond, executive director of the Women's Tennis Association, the San Francisco-based women pros' guild of which King is president. "I doubt if this incident is going to have any significant impact on women's tennis or any other women's sport.
"There was also an uproar about Renee Richards. I consider that, a transsexual playing women's tennis, much more daring, as far as the public is concerned, than (someone) admitting to a homosexual relationship seven or eight years ago. We survived that, and we'll survive this."
Diamond said the tournament sponsors that have contacted him so far "have been extremely sympathetic and supportive."
Ted Tinling, longtime tennis savant and now director of communications for the Toyota Series of women's tournaments, noted that North American tournament promoters and sponsors held two days of important meetings in Orlando last week, amid the furor. Larry King, Billie Jean's husband, a lawyer and sports entrepreneur who is also named as a defendant in Barnett's suit, attended the meetings.
"I heard nothing but ongoing commitments," said Tinling. "They all met with Larry King. In that sense, I felt the tribe closed ranks very happily."
William J. Corbett, director of public relations for Avon products, which sponsors the women's winter tour, said, "There are many, many factors that would affect our decision as far as continuing (to sponsor women's tennis), but right now we don't feel that this one situation with one player would cause us to discontinue a fine program."
Diamond said he is not worried that the women's tour will be consumed by a kind of sexual McCarthyism, damaged by unflattering rumor, suspicion and stigma by association.
"There's always been that. There always have been disparaging remarks about women athletes, whether they be golfers or tennis players of gymnasts or track stars," he said. "Sports are male-oriented, and men are much more apt to condemn homosexuality in women's sports than they are in their own sports. When it occurs in their own sports, they want to fight it and bury it under the rug. When it occurs in women's sports it seems to get a lot of attention because women athletes have always been considered unconventional. They're not the stereotype of the housewife, mother, etc.
"They fact remains that in our society we see homosexuality in some form in politics, in sports, in government, in all walks of life. Look at San Francisco: we have acknowledged gays on our Board of Supervisors, and they're elected officials, so the public, in the main, doesn't seem to turn down on it," Diamond said. "Anybody who would condemn Billie Jean for this when they look at her overall contribution to society and sports would have to be incredibly narrow-minded, in my opinion."
"People always seem to just talk about the women," said two-time Wimbledon champion Navratilova, who has been hounded by persistent and indelicate prying into her friendship with Rita Mae B rown, the gay activist author and lecturer. "I'm sure there are just as many, if not more, gays on the men's golf tour, the tennis tour, the football and basketball leagues. It just isn't talked about. Men seem exempt from this, even though there have been a couple of them that came out.
"Anyhow, I don't think it will destroy women's tennis. I don't think Avon will pull out, I don't think Toyota will pull out. If one of the sponsors pulls out, there will be somebody else coming in. People will not stop going to the matches because somebody might be gay.
"A lot of people suspect it about a lot of us, and it doesn't keep them away. It's another thing for it to be in print, but I still don't think it will harm women's tennis in any large way." Navratilova went on.
"Maybe 10 percent of the crowd might change. You know, people that would be offended. But those people I don't want to see there anyway, because they must be rather prejudiced. Not only about gays, but about blacks and Jews and all that stuff as well. I think all those prejudices go pretty much hand in hand."
The point many of the women players and tour officials make is that only public behavior, on the court and in tour-related functions, should come under scrutin. Says Turnbull: "What you do in your private life when you finish your job is no one else's business."