It was almost exactly a year ago today, a Wednesday in early March, 2015, at the L.A. Live studios on ESPN’s KSPN affiliate.
Steve Mason came out of the booth during a commercial break during the “Mason And Ireland Show” on the 710-AM radio station and knocked on the glass door of then-program director Mike Thompson.
There was a bit of urgency in his body language. Thompson got up to let him in.
“Just giving you a heads up,” Mason said in a low voice. “Could happen today. … right now … the announcement … today.”
Mason and John Ireland had just been in a discussion about the story most everyone was talking about that day: A University of Oklahoma fraternity involved in a racist chant on a bus. Mason had admitted that when he was in his university fraternity at Bowling Green, they excluded a student because he was gay.
Still, the topic had Mason on a bit of an edge. It was coming to a point where he wanted to let something out that he never admitted on the air before.
Thompson asked if maybe he could wait, noting Mason hadn’t shaved that day and if TV cameras were to come in later that afternoon.
Mason saw me sitting there in Thompson’s office.
“You know, right?” Mason asked me directly.
I don’t know anything, but I played along as if I did, to see what he’d say.
“Oh, yeah, I’m gay,” Mason said in a manner-of-fact way.
OK, so there had been behind-the-scenes talk, casual comments, “hey did you know …”
But nothing in any kind of gossipy way about Mason’s personal sexual status.
Why would it matter? You’d hear him on the show talk about how “hot” some woman was that he recently encountered, get flirty with some of the co-horts on “Good Day L.A.” where he has frequently appeared.
A “guy” being a “guy”?
Many at the station seemed to already know, because he privately told them, and you couldn’t find anyone who wasn’t supportive, especially waiting for the time when he might address it, if ever, with the listeners.
With that, you’d have to guess about 99 percent of the audience probably would not have figured anything out by listening to the way he and Ireland talked about sports, life and just about everything else for three hours a day, for more than the last couple of decades.
If ever anyone was listeningbetween any lines, they might hear Mason occasionally refer to his “my significant” when talking about his relationship. But that was it.
So then, why even bring it up?
It could add very specific context, unique in this L.A. market, to a conversation and perhaps allow callers a new liberated way to come out.
It would connect him directly with another segment of the audience, make him feel more “real” with his audience who has felt they’ve got to know him pretty well over those years.
And maybe it would allow him to breathe a little easier.
Why Mason would then tell a reporter this information and just assume it would not get out there was also, perhaps, a passive aggressive way of getting it out there even more, soften the environment, lessen any shock.
Having known Mason professionally for years, that aspect of his personal life never occurred to me, one way or another, nor did it now. The same goes with the hundreds of media people I talk to on a regular basis.
Unless it’s important enough for them to get it out, in their way, I’ll stand back and watch the process work.
I assume he trusted me with this information, as he had with others, and we would talk more about it in the days and weeks to come.
“Could you maybe wait a bit on this, please?” Thompson asked Mason in that particular moment a year ago.
“OK, I’ll wait,” Mason said, leaving the office to return to his show. “Today might be the day, but …”
Before and after that moment, Mason has had many “today could be the day” situations. It finally happened, in a somewhat organic way, last Friday.
The website, Outsports.com, documents it in a Monday post. We’ll leave it at that.
The entry point was how a college football player was quizzed about his sexual preference during the recent NFL combine.
This week, Mason told me he’d think about revisiting what happened last week, but so far he’s shied away from returning any texts or calls. Ireland has, in respect to Mason, declined to talk about it as well. Mason and Ireland go back at ESPN until 2003, and back to 1994 with their radio partnership.
Interestingly, things that Thompson said a year ago probably apply today to how this has all come about.
Thompson, one of the many laid off from ESPN in the past year, was completely supportive of when and how and why Mason would let the audience know about this aspect of his personal life, but had been concerned Mason could be hurt, exploited or receive some unexpected backlash by doing so without everyone in his inner circle on board.
“He doesn’t want to be ‘that guy’,” Thompson said at the time. “He wants to be accepted. It’s more about the freedom within himself. He doesn’t want cameras coming in here with the label ‘gay sportscaster’ on the graphic underneath.
“I’ve always been all for his liberation. Maybe he just came in here, too, because he saw you here and wants to figure out how to get the word out, but isn’t sure how.”
For Steve Mason — and maybe it’s somewhat ironic that he uses that name professionally instead of his given surname, Machonsky — it’s a matter of trying to be authentic.
Those are things we discussed off and on for the last year. It wasn’t important for me to “break” this story, but as a media member, maybe I could offer advice, give him some outsider perspective and see how that might fit into his game plan.
Mason sent a text in January to say he was coming out publicly very soon, that he and colleague Ramona Shelburne recorded a podcast before the holidays “in the context of authenticity … it’s not just about me coming out. It’s actually a one-off. She and I are close so it felt safer to me to do it in that context. I’ve spent the last month sending it to people and getting feedback. I think it’s just right.”
But it wasn’t. The plan was to have the podcast featured on ESPN.com, with social media links to it. But Mason texted back a few days later that his partner of 10 years wasn’t up for it.
“I need to abide by his wishes,” Mason added. “The day will come. Just not this week.”
Yes, even today, making a personal identity revelation in a male-dominant sports world, now involving the media, is surrounded by some barbed wire. Do you snip it, climb over it, shimmy under it,or take a deep breath and charge through it, figuring out the residual damage on the other side.
But then, who gets hurt the most and ends up licking wounds?
We’ve been in contact at various points, going over potential launching points for Mason. Ireland has as well.
They would often get to an edge, then back away, not comfortable about the timing.
Mason had considered other ways of putting it out there over the last few years. One he admitted to was doing it on a Bill Simmons’ podcast. My point to him was that he’d still have to explain things to his 710 listeners – or, in the intimacy of radio, his “family” of loyal followers — as to why he did it that way and not first released it to them. They might feel slighted.
Another time, there was a cover story in a Sports Illustrated issue – a piece on a 50-something San Francisco man named Aaron Levi who had been adopted and was searching out his birth mother and father. He discovered that, by all evidence, Wilt Chamberlain was his real dad.
In passing, it also mentioned that Levi was gay.
But there was this whole other important journey about coming to terms with identity — how and why he was the way he was.
Mason agreed that bringing up that story could be another entry point in a discussion. He said he would think about it.
Mason has always had a very liberal bent look on life, discussing his political leanings without making it confrontational in his prism of sports. This would seem to have fit into that demographic makeup.
I even joked with Mason that even if he didn’t want to become the “first openly gay sports-talk host in L.A.,” someone else might grab that title at some point — even if they weren’t. Imagine what that could do for a personal brand in this day in age.
That wasn’t Mason’s intention, then or now.
So, is it a breaking news story any more when someone in the sports world – athlete, general manager, media member – comes out?
Maybe the same way it isn’t when a minority is hired as a head coach?
When someone finally becomes the first openly gay player in Major League Baseball, it will be a “thing” most likely. And then it won’t.
Is this a story that moves the needle as to how one decides to reveal identity and measures the reaction is invokes, especially on a sports multi-media platform?
From our side of the media teeter totter, this was only a story when Mason was ready for it to be one. Thankfully, he’s comfortable enough to put it out there, with or without our assistance.
We congratulated him on Twitter this week.
— Tom Hoffarth (@tomhoffarth) March 7, 2016
The response has been equally as supportive.
— Cyd Zeigler (@CydZeigler) March 7, 2016
— GLAAD (@glaad) March 8, 2016
— David Singer (@DavidSingerNFL) March 7, 2016
— Matthew Berry (@MatthewBerryTMR) March 7, 2016
— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) March 7, 2016
Some news outlets are reporting this as “news.” It is, on some levels. It isn’t on others.
On Steve Mason’s own website, he identifies himself as “an all-purpose broadcaster. A classic ‘generalist’ who is well-versed in just about everything. … a regular contributor for KTTV Fox 11/Los Angeles where he regularly contributes on ‘Good Day LA’ … working on a new talk show project for public television, and, in his spare time, he is President of Flagship Theatres, where he has helped to create Cinémas Palme d’Or, the cutting edge arthouse in the Coachella Valley. Mason was born in Altoona, PA and raised in Toledo, OH. By the time he was 15, he was already hosting a daily radio show, and by 20, while attending Bowling Green State University, he was the host of the #1-rated morning radio show in Toledo.”
That really sums it up.
Anything else you need to know about him?
L.A. sports talk has always been better with him in it. And, in some interesting way, it probably just got better for us, and easier for him.