Of all the major American sports, football might be the most difficult culture, perhaps, for an openly gay, high-profile professional athlete.
Not that any locker room, on any level, is an easy place for an openly gay man in sports. Still, the National Football League, the nation’s most popular sporting spectacle, has a long tradition of celebrating violent masculinity, becoming a league known for its smashing hits and hyper-machismo – as well as its wartime metaphors of trenches, bombs, and blitzes.
So when Michael Sam, the 260-pound consensus all-American defensive end from the University of Missouri, told the world on Sunday that he is an “openly proud gay man,” he not only sent a seismic-level shock wave through the NFL, he also brought attention once again to the league’s toughen-the-player-for-battle ethos, a subculture in which intimidation and humiliation – including the use of sexual and racial epithets – are parts of the physical and emotional gauntlet believed to prepare players for the league’s arduous athletic demands.
“Sports, and particularly football, have been one of the last bastions of real acute homophobia, within the locker room, in particular,” says Daniel Rosenberg, professor of sports ethics and sociology at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla. “And football is so emblematic of traditional masculine identity of power and aggression and strength, that I think they would’ve been the last area, especially within the locker room, to fully accept it.”
Sam’s announcement comes at a time when views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage have been undergoing seismic changes of their own. In the past decade, 16 US states and the District of Columbia have allowed gay marriage, including seven in 2013 alone. For the first time last year, a majority of Americans (51 percent) said they favored same-sex marriage, according to a Pew survey.
Even at this year’s Olympics, America’s evolving attitudes have contrasted with those in Russia, where its parliament voted 436-to-0 to forbid promoting homosexual “propaganda.” Many athletes have spoken out against gay stereotypes and bias in the host country, where more than 70 percent of its people say homosexuality is morally unacceptable.
Despite the profound shifts in American views, the issue remains a culture-war-level topic in many regions of the United States. Sam’s announcement that he is a proud gay man jolted, for instance, the “Friday Night Lights” region of the country where open homosexuality and gay rights are not generally accepted.
The college football star, projected to be taken in the fourth or fifth round in May’s NFL Draft, was voted the co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, the most dominant college football region in the country by far. Last year, the SEC sent a record 63 players to the NFL after the 2013 draft, more than double any other conference and the most since 1983, when the PAC-10 sent 55 players.
“So many people follow football in the South, and especially the SEC,” continues Professor Rosenberg. “So coming out of there, it’ll be interesting to see ... the impact his coming out will have on that region.”
Each of the SEC’s member schools, however, is from a “red” state where there is a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. Most were adopted in the past decade.
“I think we’re still, as a society, we’re growing from it,” said Antonio Pierce, former all-Pro linebacker and team captain with the New York Giants, on ESPN on Monday. “So just to sit there and say that the NFL right away is going to adapt and open arms, I don’t think that’s the case, that’s not reality. Guys are scared to say the truth, because they don’t want the backlash.”
Last fall, the public got an insider’s view of some brutal locker room rituals when Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the team after enduring a verbal assault from fellow lineman Richie Incognito, who used racial epithets and death threats to motivate, he said, the struggling Martin.
But even in the NFL, attitudes may be changing, and Sam’s announcement may signal that fast-moving cultural shifts are reverberating into gridiron culture, as well.
“One of the more compelling developments in terms of the issues around homophobia and the way in which LGBT athletes and employees are treated within sports settings, is how much of that change is being driven by the younger generation, who, in their world view, none of this makes any sense to them,” says Ellen Staurowksy, professor of sports management at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Many scholars also note that, as a conduit for rapid social change, sports is often the most powerful means to accomplish widespread changes in people’s stereotypes about the unfamiliar other.
“Sport has always been a very, very good vehicle in civil rights cases to transform our ideologies, not only with blacks, but our ideology toward women as well,” says Rosenberg. “Women like the Williams sisters [tennis's Venus and Serena] have really helped redefine traditional femininity to express a certain degree of strength and empowerment, too.
“The dilemma with the football-crazed or sports-crazed regions is, if there’s any latent discriminatory feeling, it’s counteracted by the competitive desire to have the best team,” continues Rosenberg. “And it certainly trumped any racism over the time when it came to integrating with black football players, and I think the same could be said in this situation.”
This in turn could put a lot of pressure on Sam to perform spectacularly, many observers say, as he will carry the weight of being the first openly gay male athlete in one of America’s most popular sports. If he’s successful, his sexuality will stop being a issue, just as race eventually did.
“Guys are going to be a little wary at first,” said Mr. Pierce. “But if you see, hey, OK, he’s studying, he’s asking questions, he’s doing the things like everybody else, he’s in the weight room with us, he’s working hard. Oh, and also he’s performing? There’s production there? OK, you start pushing things to the side.... Forget sexuality and race and all that."