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The curious case of Zach Puchtel and no news coverage

Zach Puchtel
REUTERS/Brent Smith
Michigan’s Daniel Horton (right) fouls Gophers forward Zach Puchtel during the first round of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament in Indianapolis last year.

 

“I’ve had relations with girls from many nations
“I’ve made passes at women of all classes
“And just because you’re gay, I won’t turn you away…
“Sexuality – strong and warm and wild and free
“Sexuality – your laws do not apply to me.”
— Billy Bragg, “Sexuality”

Hey, did you hear the one about the Gopher male athlete who came out this year? You wouldn’t, if you only read the dailies and watched the local TV news.

Zach Puchtel is the Hopkins native who earned acclaim two seasons ago by walking onto the Gophers basketball team from the campus of Harvard University and becoming Big Ten Player of the Week. Everything about Puchtel — his goofy enthusiasm, his relentless work ethic, his return to Harvard, a post-graduate tryout with the NFL Chicago Bears — made him a fascinating and memorable guy.

And all that was before Sept. 17. That’s when Puchtel wrote on his “The Search” blog:

“As most of my good friends know, I came out of the closet nearly 6 months ago. Not only did I come out, but I made a public spectacle by doing it in the middle of a fashion show that I was involved in. Now, needless to say, it has been an eye-opening experience for me. More than anything, it’s made me come to realize the consequences of my actions. I hurt a number of people by doing what I did, but more importantly, I freed myself. I freed myself from a question that had lingered in my mind for years, freed myself from the internal scrutiny that was becoming nearly impossible to bear, and lastly freed myself from the fear of living….”

Pondering his NFL dreams, Puchtel added, “I believe that I was put on this earth to play football. This is my next goal, and I don’t see anything that can stop me. Narcissism and ego aside, the one problem that may arise is the issue of being gay. I am not gay. I am not straight. I am who I am. I am sexually attracted to men and women, and I enjoy being with women in intimate relationships. I think human beings are beautiful, and I try not to differentiate due to sex, race or any other minute detail. … I don’t know how this is going to work out. As far as I know, there has never been an openly gay (or recently announced gay) athlete in a major sport. It is important because I know who I am, and I want others to be able to feel comfortable in their own skin as well.”

About a month later, the local fan site gopherhole.com got wind of Puchtel’s post. Their interview — featuring his memorable “go big or go home” quote about coming out to 3,000 fashion show attendees — remains the only one Puchtel has done. On Oct. 26, Minnesota Monitor flagged the gopherhole interview, which is how I got wind of the story. My own bias — having covered raunchy, homophobic locker rooms for years — is to root for every athlete who comes out. The GLBT community has advanced as straight folks realize their neighbors, friends, family and co-workers are members. Top-tier men’s sports is a last bastion of pretend-all-straightness. Exploding that phoniness is another brick out of prejudice’s wall.

‘Old news’
So I sat back and waited for the major media coverage of Puchtel’s story. Weeks went by. Nothing. In a town where sports coverage features every athlete’s utterance, action and flatulence, this was even more stunning.

The “ick” factor didn’t seem likely. Everyone covered former Viking Esera Tuaolo’s coming out; perhaps Puchtel’s tacit bisexuality was too much for the local crowd? Could it be his relative youth? Maybe the whole blog-type thing somehow flew under their radar screens.

It turns out the dailies know all about what’s up. Dennis Brackin, the Strib’s assistant sports editor, says a Puchtel story was discussed in-house and any ick factor was no factor. One factor that was: timing. “By the time I saw the blog, it was old news,” Brackin explains. “Also, he was gone from our scene. If he had come out during his senior season at the U, it would’ve been big news.”

He adds that Puchtel didn’t meet the name-recognition threshold “where we said we had to jump out and do it.”

A final reason: staff cuts. Puchtel’s blog hit at a time when the Strib was buying out and transferring dozens of reporters. Gopher basketball writer Jeff Shelman moved to the news side, and Brackin was between correspondents. “I’ll be honest; our staffing is more in a spot where we have to pick and choose,” he allows.

Pioneer Press sports editor Mike Bass is more circumspect, saying that it would be unfair to his writers and a competitive disadvantage to discuss any news piece that might still be in the works. He clearly knew there was a story out there.

No more interviews
Neither editor mentioned Puchtel’s lack of cooperation, but earlier this week, Puchtel emailed me and confirmed he wasn’t talking about the details to the press. “No other interviews have been done,” he wrote. “I know how quickly the media can get a hold of something, turn it into whatever they want, and then spit you out like you never happened. I value my life too much to put myself through this ugly cycle, and so I chose to avoid any further interviews until a later time. I have been talking with a few members of the gay community in regards to other things, but for now, the interviews are on hold.”

Although older folks might question how a member of Generation Exhibitionist can blog all about it, then clam up when the questions come, it’s hard to blame the guy for wanting to control so personal a story. Puchtel’s generation is both more comfortable with sharing and more savvy about the media.

I mean, can you imagine if one of the TV stations gave this a whirl? (None have called, Puchtel says, not even WCCO, which did a piece on his Bears tryout.) One need not squint too hard to see Esme Murphy panting over some sort of lurid “expose” or perhaps a treacly KARE-11 treatment. God help me, I can’t get the voice of Ken Speake out of my head:

Zach Puchtel. Straight man.
Zach Puchtel. Gay man.
Zach Puchtel. Just a man.

So do I think that the major media should tell us there’s a story out there even if Puchtel won’t do an interview? Yes; that’s why I’m writing this post.

Surely some notes jockey can tip readers to Puchtel’s blog — where he’s still wrestling with the feelings and consequences of his revelation. They’d help their vast audience find a particularly human tale, told by a particularly interesting fellow. They wouldn’t be “spoiling” a bigger story — in fact, they’d set the table for the day when the primary subject is ready to answer questions. There’s simply no reason for a total news blackout, especially with all the truly trivial junk that passes for sports news in this town.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Jim Meyer on 12/03/2007 - 11:56 am.

    Personally I found it refreshing that the mainstream media made no big deal of ZP, and thought that maybe, just MAYBE, its low-key handling was a cultural milestone, a turning point for the press. But then I awoke to a partial summary of Larry Craig’s alleged sexual contacts over the decades. Maybe both highly dissimilar reporting approaches are correct under their circumstances, strange as it may seem. I’d respect Larry’s privacy, if he’d respect everyone else’s, but Zach is just Zach being Zach. Larry is not being Larry. (Or is he?) Am I making sense?

  2. Submitted by Paul Schmelzer on 12/03/2007 - 12:08 pm.

    Very nice piece, David. A thoughtful approach to the (lack of) news…

  3. Submitted by David Brauer on 12/03/2007 - 12:10 pm.

    Jim – I’m not sure about a *big* deal, but making no deal of it still seems curious to me. I guess on some level, I hold out hope we media types can report on a story like this without getting hysterical.

    And make no mistake – it IS a story. As Zach himself has noted, his coming out could complicate his future professional sports career. Remember, there are no out gay/bisexual athletes in major sports who came out during or before their careers.

    To be sure, Puchtel isn’t even in the same league with Larry Craig – he’s both morally superior and less significant, considering the governance implications. But his is still a journey worth knowing about, even if it’s just to direct people to the tale he himself is telling.

  4. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/03/2007 - 07:24 pm.

    So, is ZP about 20 or so? I’m wondering why he doesn’t say he is bisexual. (and wondering if youth is a factor)
    I’m wondering if the fact that he is coming out as “himself” rather than as “gay” per se makes the story harder to cover.

    thanks for writing about this.

  5. Submitted by David Brauer on 12/03/2007 - 08:59 pm.

    According to the Gopher sports website, he was born Jan. 12, 1983 so that would make him 24, nearly 25.

  6. Submitted by Erica Mauter on 12/04/2007 - 06:10 pm.

    I’m of two minds on this.

    1. The way to raise public awareness (and thus acceptance) is to normalize the story. It is news, for reasons already mentioned, and it ought to be reported.

    2. I don’t really trust the media to handle it well. I’d rather see it not reported at all than see the reporting all botched up.

  7. Submitted by James Proescholdt on 12/06/2007 - 12:44 pm.

    The old dictum “know your audience” keeps springing to my mind here. I think most mainstream media groups, when dealing with coming out or gay stories, think that since most readers are straight, they need to shape these stories accordingly, gearing them toward a straight audience. Unfortunately, this usually pigeonholes said stories into one of two categories: the salacious (e.g. Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, same-sex marriage assaulting traditional marriage) or the martyrized (attacks on GLBT people, institutions like churches or Boy Scouts denying them certain rights).

    This story doesn’t neatly fit into either category. It’s neither salacious (he’s not currently on a team, so no gay panic in the locker room; there was no documented adverse reaction to his announcement) nor a martyrization. Maybe it’s been dubbed non-newsworthy because of that fact.

    Readers looking for more GLBT news get tired of retreading these same two story archtypes time and again, and often have to resort to alternative news sources for anything else. I read of this story more than a month ago on a few blogs, because I haven’t counted on mainstream media to cover this area for years.

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