Philly-Area Writer Helped Jason Collins Tell His Coming Out Story in SI
Monday morning, NBA center Jason Collins came out of the closet in a Sports Illustrated cover story, making him the first openly gay male athlete in major U.S. sports history. The writer of the piece is 61-year-old Franz Lidz, who has written for Philly Mag and lives among roosters and llamas on a farm in Landenberg, Pennsylvania, 40 miles southwest of Philadelphia. I called him at home yesterday.
Collins’ agent Arn Tellem essentially pitched you the story.
He was hinting about it earlier, but never formally asked me. We talk all the time—and he was just throwing out this hypothetical, that one of his athletes was gay. He didn’t name the sport, didn’t name the player I would be interviewing. He asked me if I’d be interesting in writing it. I said sure.
Where were you when you got the call?
I was here, probably home. Arn called me just before Easter. Shortly after, I called Chris Stone, Sports Illustrated‘s managing editor, on Easter Day.
Whose idea was it to write the thing in Jason’s voice?
I said first-person, because it would be most powerful, and you’d really want to know how he’s saying it. For third person, you might as well go to the New York Times—I could have gone to the New York Times. It seemed like SI was the perfect venue.
You don’t have much experience writing about gay issues. Why did Arn call you?
Arn and I have been friends for more than 50 years—I’ve written many pieces about him. We were in same wiffleball league in Penn Valley. We share—maybe I’m a little more leftist—but we’re both progressives, white male, Jewish, married, whatever, and I guess if there’s a page, we’re on the same one. So we trust each other; this is a story you need a lot of trust. His only condition was that I didn’t ask who it was.
So you just went to L.A., to see that man who would be Jason Collins, blind.
I brought my younger daughter, [25-year-old] Daisy, out there. She went to Sarah Lawrence—when she was there, one of the things they stress is gender issues. We went to his house on Wednesday [April 24th] and talked to him for four hours.
You brought SI Executive Editor Jon Wertheim too.
He came along just because we were a little worried about social media, just this leaking out somewhere. So we wanted to be prepared, if need be, to edit it on the spot. Thursday, I wrote it—and I batted it back and forth with Daisy. [She typed, he dictated.] Friday, we showed up at his house and his parents and a high-school friend were there. Reading it aloud, Jason stopped at least a half a a dozen times he was so moved. He would just stop and thank me and at the end he stopped and said he loved it.
What does it mean to have helped break sports news of this magnitude?
I don’t go into stories thinking I’m breaking ground. I just hope it can be interesting.
But this story would have been interesting no matter who wrote it, or how well it turned out. This is different, right?
Yeah. [Gay New York Times columnist] Frank Bruni called me yesterday—he did a column on this—he was asking me about the lede. (“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”) He thought it was particularly powerful to end with “gay.” Well, what I told him was, I just wanted to say the story immediately up front and get that out of the way, and let him tell his story. I didn’t want to have a lot of exposition and a lot of finger snapping. My oldest daughter Gogo said that now that the lede is like everywhere, maybe it’ll be engraved on my tomb as an epitaph.
In part because of the wide support Collins has enjoyed since coming out, one could argue that this isn’t the barrier-breaking it’s being made out to be.
There’s an awful lot of bigotry in the world, and there are so many straight people who want to ignore this issue and push it aside. And yes, there is more acceptance and tolerance of gays now, but anyone who doesn’t say this isn’t a big issue or not a big deal, is just kidding themselves. We’ve had professional sports for 140 years—in that time, zero gay athletes have come out.
How does this all affect Collins’ career, which is already nearing its end.
I can guarantee you that one team will pick him up. Knowing him, this is not a calculated career move. However, if it had been, it would have been a great career move.
You’ve been in the sports journalism orbit for several decades now. What would the reaction to Collins’ announcement have been like when you started out?
I was working at SI when Martina Navratilova came out in the early 1980s. And I remember an editor telling me they wouldn’t put her on the cover because she was an “ugly lesbian.” Even before she came out. It’s been a sea change, just in the last few years. It’s all been I would think because of the humanizing of gay people on television. You know, sports leagues are at least 15-20 years behind the rest of our culture. They’re just now catching up.
Correction: This post originally stated that Lidz requested the player remain anonymous to him until their meeting. It was Tellem’s stipulation, not Lidz’s.