By Alan Grant
Special to Page 2

Manhood is under attack.

And the battle is taking place in the sports world. Of course, this war is hardly new. Is there any human characteristic that breeds more insecurity than manhood? Any distinction harder to define or deemed more necessary to defend?

For the past few years, the primary means of attack on manhood has been the steroid issue.

A steroid is a drug by which an athlete makes himself even more of a man. Large, weight-bearing muscles are made larger, and fast-twitch fibers are made even faster. I think most men would agree that super-manhood is a noble pursuit. But for anyone who strives to achieve it by unjust means, there's hell to pay. He is stripped of his male accomplishments and cloaked in shame. He is called a "cheater."

Ozzie Guillen
Jeff Roberson/AP Photo
Ozzie Guillen's got his own views on manhood.

Barry Bonds would have hit only 600-something home runs if he were a "real" man.

I see why this issue reigns supreme. The male athlete is supremely advantaged and blessed with skills most normal men lack. Because of that, he is considered the working model of manhood. The public debate about whether a man's maleness is entirely "genuine" has become the salvo of choice for any would-be dissenter.

But enough already. This absurd witch hunt has become an epidemic.

Last week, mercifully, we got some relief from this ridiculous debate. Once upon a time, before the steroid issue took center stage, there was another means of casting doubt on athletic masculinity. The gay issue. And it's making a comeback! Not a moment too soon. Crude, old-fashioned, sophomoric statements about sexuality are just the thing to counterbalance this obsession with steroids.

Last week, at a divorce trial, Jean Strahan suggested that her estranged husband, Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, had developed an "alternative lifestyle" with his friend, Dr. Ian Smith. And Strahan handled it the way a lot of straight men would have. He laughed and mocked his "accuser." See, the gay rumor is rather easy to deflect. One can either laugh it off the way Strahan did, or he can be more proactive, the way I once heard sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards address the topic. I once took a class Edwards taught called "Focus on the Black Athlete." We discussed Carl Lewis and how, during the height of his Olympic greatness, he lived under the constant barrage of alleged gayness.

"I know how I would handle it," Edwards said. "I would say, 'Where's your sister?' or 'Where's your mama? I'll prove it to you.'"

Yes, that's a bit crass, direct and unapologetic. But in its essence, so is masculinity. It certainly is if you're the current reigning king of macho doctrine: Ozzie Guillen. Guillen recently stirred the pot by referring to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti as a "fag." Guillen says that Mariotti earned the title not because of his sexual orientation but because of his questionable courage. He says Mariotti is less than a man for lacking the guts to speak to him in person. As one who has done time on both sides of the razor-wire-topped fence that separates athletes from the media, I've got to say in deference to each man: Guillen shouldn't have the time to read stories about himself, let alone respond to them, and Mariotti could prove he has guts, not to mention good business sense, by setting up a (televised) sit-down with his foulmouthed archenemy.

Barry Bonds
Jeff Chiu/AP Photo
Barry Bonds' pursuit of super-manhood has backfired on him.

In the midst of his tirade, Ozzie did raise an interesting point. While backpedaling from his mess of words, he claimed that, in Venezuela, there was a different translation for his slur. Got me thinking about some other cultural interpretations and how, at its core, the whole masculinity thing is little more than a flimsy construct. I knew this cat named Alpha, who hailed from Guinea on the west coast of Africa. Alpha used to ask me why American men were so loath to show affection. He said that where he was from, it was customary for men to hold hands, walk arm in arm, even sit on one another's laps. But this didn't mean they were gay.

I told him the rules on masculinity in this country are hard and fast, if you will. And the athletic world -- that realm of all things male, musky and aggressive -- is the final frontier of masculinity. It's a landscape that once was ruled grandly by the cowboy. I thought the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made an interesting statement in March. Hollywood, a place fairly flexible on sexual orientation, championed a movie about open racism over one about amorous mountain men.

That said, there's still a rumor more contentious than alternative sexual identity. To my knowledge, there has never been a congressional hearing to out gay athletes. I doubt 13 federal agents would have raided Jason Grimsley's home because they wanted to collect evidence of an "alternative lifestyle." Nor would those 13 agents ask him to turn state's evidence on other alleged homosexuals.

I know what you're saying -- steroids are illegal in a legislative sort of way, and homosexuality isn't. But much like illegal immigration, steroids have always been with us, always been a vital, if unseen, part of our fabric. It only became an "issue" when it threatened some mythological aspect of our being. But come on, folks. It was there eight years ago when Big Mac and Sammy captured our interest as they chased Roger Maris. No one seemed to care then. Baseball relies on mythology just like we rely on folks willing to break their backs for less than minimum wage.

Question is, what happens next? What happens after Barry Bonds retires? What happens after all the suspects have been outed and tried for their various crimes? I'll tell you what happens then.

Manhood will be safe.


Alan Grant is a regular contributor to and ESPN The Magazine. He is a former NFL defensive back who played college football at Stanford.