Many Endorsement Deals Aren't Coming Out -- Many Gay Athletes Have Learned They Must Stay In The Closet In Order To Land Lucrative Contracts

Diver Greg Louganis looked like Adonis and ruled from on high like Zeus. At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Louganis became the first man in 56 years to win gold medals in both the platform and springboard events.

With his sculpted good looks and gracious personality, he seemed perfectly suited for pitching products. But after the curtain fell on the Games, Louganis drifted back into relative obscurity. He signed contracts with swimwear and towel manufacturers but not much else.

Louganis, it seemed, could beat everything but homophobia.

He is among a select few athletes to have come out of the closet, following the leads of tennis players Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, the late Olympic decathlete Tom Waddell, former NFL running back Dave Kopay and former Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke. The group almost certainly would be larger if membership wasn't generally recognized as a kiss of death in the lucrative world of endorsements.

"There is a total reluctance from corporations and advertisers to use gay and lesbian athletes," said Andrew Woolf, vice president and co-owner of World Class Sports, a Beverly Hills-based sports marketing agency. "It's not the right image . . . they just don't want to take that chance."

Linda Dozoretz, Navratilova's longtime publicist, summed it up thusly: "Whoever the moral majority is, they have companies scared."

How else to explain how Navratilova, who has a record nine Wimbledon singles titles or about three times as many gold trophies as endorsement contracts? She represents Yonex rackets, Apple Computer, Thorlo socks and Lotto clothes and shoes.

"Martina's known for telling the truth," Dozoretz said. "Who better for an advertiser to use than someone who's known for telling the truth?"

If numbers don't lie, the answer to Dozoretz's question is just about anybody. A Newsweek poll taken two years ago found that 53 percent of the respondents did not consider homosexuality an acceptable alternative lifestyle.

Asked if gay rights are a threat to the American family and its values, 45 percent of those questioned replied yes.

The attitudes toward gays can be as subtle as a drop shot - a TV script being offered then later rescinded for no reason or a company representative gushing, "Oh, I love Martina . . . I'll get back to you tomorrow," never to be heard from again.

"It's like all of a sudden it gets to some level and they decide she is too controversial," Dozoretz said.

Often, Navratilova said, the resistance comes from the very top. In a Ms magazine story that appeared in February 1988, Navratilova told writer Michele Kort, "The president of a corporation may be my best friend, but he still won't take that chance (to sign her to an endorsement contract) because of the public. He might get five bad letters and a hundred good ones, but the five bad ones are the ones that matter."

Said Dozoretz, "You're not going to get the companies to say they do (discriminate against gays and lesbians) and it's impossible to prove. But it's there."

Wendy Williams, a teammate of Louganis at Mission Viejo, Calif., in the early 1980s, suspected a strong undercurrent after the 1984 Games.

"There was nothing for Greg. I couldn't understand that," Williams said. "The (endorsement) pie is big enough. It should have gone around a little more.

"The only reason I can think that he didn't get what he deserved were the rumors that he was gay."

Bruce Hayes, a swimmer on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, has viewed gay bias in the sporting arena from both sides. The graduate of UCLA stayed in the closet throughout his competitive swimming career because he feared the truth would bring recriminations. His present job with the public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, allows him a window on the world of image makers - who by and large are conservative, white, heterosexual males.

"If the rumors weren't there, Greg would have been plastered over everything," said Hayes, 30. "There was nothing about him you wouldn't want as corporate marketers."

Indeed, Barbara Crossier, who for the past four years has handled many of Louganis' appearances on behalf of Speedo swimwear, said: "He is the most popular athlete we have. More people come to see Greg at our retail stores than any of our other people."

Other Speedo representatives include swimmers Janet Evans, Pablo Morales and Summer Sanders and volleyball player Karch Kiraly.

Why then, Crossier was asked, has Louganis, 34, who successfully defended his platform and springboard events at the 1988 Games, had trouble procuring endorsements that transcend the relatively narrow parameters of the pool?

Crossier, assistant manager of the promotions department, let the question roll over her like a wave. After a pause, she said, "I'd never really thought about that. I guess that is rather odd, isn't it?"

Louganis sidestepped all questions about gay bias in the marketplace, saying his read on the subject will be included in his autobiography titled "Breaking the Surface," which is due out in January 1995.

Guilt by association could be the mantra of the beleaguered Ladies Professional Golf Association, where some lesbians play it straight for fear of losing their sponsors.

One closeted lesbian on the LPGA tour described her living lie to author Mariah Burton Nelson in a book published two years ago titled, "Are We Winning Yet? How Women Are Changing Sports and Sports Are Changing Women."

The woman spoke under the umbrella of anonymity so as to protect her sizeable income from endorsements.

Paranoid or prudent? You be the judge.