Until recently, MCI Center cameramen would pan the grandstand during timeouts at Washington Mystics games and flash pictures of romantically involved pairs of fans on the arena’s Jumbotron screen. Eventually, one of the televised twosomes would be announced as “Couple of the Game” and receive a gift certificate from a local restaurant chain and a round of applause.

After sitting through several of the promotions, Marina Colby and her friends noticed a pattern: Only heterosexual couples in the arena were getting the prize. Therefore, Colby—who plays for the other team—never had a chance at the free meal. Other Mystics fans were in the same boat. A whole lot of them.

“If you look around at a Mystics game, you should notice that some of the couples are not heterosexual,” says Colby, with a hint of sarcasm. “But the team would never, ever put a lesbian couple up on the screen, or acknowledge a lesbian couple as the Couple of the Game. If you’ve seen the crowd, you know how ridiculous that is.”

Washington Sports, the group that owns the Mystics, has now benched the couples promotion, substituting a “Fan of the Game” award. Team officials say that the change was made at the request of contest’s sponsor, That’s Amore, the Rockville-based restaurant chain.

Not so, says Fredric Traube, director of advertising for That’s Amore. His company didn’t make that request, he says.

“I only found out about the change after it happened,” Traube says. “I made some comment about how the promotion was doing, and was told [by a Washington Sports official] that it was going well, and that, ‘Oh, by the way, it’s not “Couple of the Game” anymore.’ I was told that they made the change ‘out of political considerations about [showing] same-sex couples.’ As the sponsor, I could have taken umbrage. That change was made unilaterally, and as a company, same-sex couples make no difference to us. We embrace everybody. We don’t care who wins: same sex, heterosexual, whatever.”

Though gone—for whatever reason—the contest is not forgotten. For some, it has become a symbol of the tenuous relationship between women’s athletics and lesbians.

Last week, the Washington Times ran a story on a rally planned by the Lesbian Avengers, a gay activist group, to denounce Gary Bauer’s Family Resource Council (FRC) for its latest homophobic propaganda binge. The new FRC campaign features a series of newspaper ads—which have appeared in both the New York Times and the Washington Post—that make the amazing claim that Reggie White, the Green Bay Packers lineman and dumbbell laureate of the anti-gay movement, isn’t an idiot, but rather a victim of a smear campaign by “the pro-homosexual lobby.”

The Washington Times story added that the Avengers intended to attend the Mystics game against New York on Sunday, prompting speculation that the WNBA team would also be a target of the protesters. But in the days prior to the game/

march, the Avengers tried to quash the speculation. Spokesperson Jessica Brown even went on a local sports radio station to argue that the Times had gotten it all wrong. The game, she told the WTEM drive-time audience, was coincidental to the rally at FRC. As it turns out, FRC headquarters is just a few hundred yards from the MCI Center on G Street NW. The Mystics, she said, would give the Avengers something to cheer for before jeering the real enemy at Bauer’s house.

“We certainly don’t have anything against the Mystics,” Brown said.

At the early evening rally, Brown MC’d as speaker after speaker sacked White and slammed Bauer, Trent Lott, and the other usual suspects. None of the speakers, however, took any potshots at the Mystics.

Away from the podium, though, rank-and-file Avengers expressed disappointment with their favorite team. The handling of the Couple of the Game contest, they said, was unsurprising for a franchise that was taking such a large portion of its audience for granted during its inaugural season.

Kim Donahue, an Avenger from Baltimore, complained about what she thought was heavy-handed treatment from the MCI Center security staff earlier in the day. Guards had searched Avengers’ bags when they arrived at the arena and confiscated Donahue’s stash of Avengers stickers without, she said, explaining why. Donahue was also irked that guards had been posted at the Avengers’ section throughout the game, while none of the other, apparently heterosexual, groups in attendance were watched so closely.

“I don’t know what was behind the way we were treated, but I do know that it doesn’t make me feel very good,” Donahue said. “It was like they’re afraid of us. I go to Mystics games, and I see lesbians everywhere! The crowd has to be at least 40 percent lesbians—that’s not scientific, but I have excellent, excellent ‘gaydar,’ and I’m going by just the obviously gay people. So to treat us like that, and also the whole thing with that [Couple of the Game], is ridiculous. They know lesbians are their biggest fans, but we’re their dirty little secret.”

To show her discontent with the Mystics’ handling of the contest, Colby had drawn up her own “Couple of the Game” placard and brought it, along with an empty picture frame, to the MCI Center. She also carried the props to the rally and giggled along with other ralliers each time she put the frame up in front of two hugging Avengers.

“I thought some of my friends deserved to be Couple of the Game,” Colby explained. “If the team won’t give them the award, I will.”

As the rally broke up, Colby and Donahue both said they intended to continue cheering on the Mystics.

—Dave McKenna