Michael Sam—the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and NFL hopeful—announced last week that he is gay. His candor has shaken the football world. If drafted, he would be the first openly gay player in NFL history.
Yes, in case you thought you stepped into that Doritos Super Bowl commercial time machine, this is still 2014. Seventy-five years ago, Michael Sam’s name might have been Jackie Robinson. And yet, today, we’re more comfortable allowing a convicted dog abuser to take the ball than we are with a gay man making tackles.
While Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that the Justice Department would recognize same-sex couples, regardless of whether or not individual states do, why is it still so awkward for there to be gay men in professional sports?
Despite being an award-winning football player, Sports Illustrated reports that Sam is likely to have a harder time in the NFL—if he makes it at all—based on anonymous sources from the league. “In blunt terms, they project a significant drop in Sam’s draft stock, a publicity circus and an NFL locker room culture not prepared to deal with an openly gay player.”
One source told SI “I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” adding that, “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
The official response from the NFL was one of support. John Elway, former quarterback for the Denver Broncos (and Super Bowl XXXIII MVP) and now the executive vice president of football operations for the Broncos, offered kind words of support to Sam. “I applaud Michael Sam and wish him the very best as he continues the pursuit of his NFL dream,” he said. “As we look toward the combine and draft, we will evaluate Michael just like any other draft prospect – on the basis of his ability, character and NFL potential. His announcement will have no effect on how we see him as a football player.” But, an NFL assistant coach called Sam’s decision “not a smart move,” as he said it “legitimately affects [his] potential earnings.”
Even after NBA center Jason Collins shook the sports world last spring by coming out, Sam’s case is clearly being received differently. Collins is a veteran basketball player closer to the end of his career than the beginning. And basketball, even in all its splendor, is no NFL. It’s (quite literally and figuratively) a different ball game. Basketball, we love it, of course. But it’s for the freakishly tall. The scoring is ridiculously uneventful. It loses its power in a way that football doesn’t. Football is for gladiators. They weather extreme weather and the burden of lugging around heavy gear. They go to battle every week in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans. These men are our modern warriors. That’s not as glorious as it sounds, though.
And for Sam, a rookie stepping into the intensity of the NFL as the first openly gay man, the situation is notably different. At least it is from the executive perspective. “There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that,” an assistant coach told SI. “There’s nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room. If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It’s going to be a big distraction. That’s the reality. It shouldn’t be, but it will be.”
That attitude is partly because football is, like one anonymous source told SI, still perceived as a “man’s man” kind of game. (Even though this writer is just one of many dedicated and knowledgeable female fans. Go Steelers.) Worshiping those modern warriors comes at a cost. Just watch the Super Bowl and all the inglorious commercials that appeal to machismo and male insecurity. Drive faster cars. Drink better beer. Eat more meat for god’s sake, you’re a man! For the gay or straight viewer, the culture that surrounds football does more to defeat a man’s confidence than to boost it up. Everything about football, except for the game itself, tells men they’re not good enough. The last thing those men can handle is someone on the field making them consider their own sexuality—whether they’re gay or not. Nor do they want to have to consider the sexual preference of their friends, brothers, fathers, sons.
Why? Because even though we shame Russia for Sochi’s ridiculous attitude towards gay people, we allow our culture to do the same. We’re happy to “tolerate” or “accept” gayness as long as it occurs outside of the places we seek sanctuary. And football, for some men (certainly not all), is probably the only place where they feel comfortable touching another man—whether that’s a tackle on the field or a high-five at the bar watching it happen. That’s not a fault of football. Or gay men. It’s a deep-rooted problem in our culture that needs to go away. Men—like women, like gay men, like transgender people—are humans first. They’re flesh, blood, and everything that holds us together. Who we love doesn’t matter nearly as much as why we love. It’s just what humans do. We can’t explain it, so why do we judge it?
When Jackie Robinson stepped out onto the baseball field as the first black man in the major leagues, true Dodgers fans eventually came to see him as just a player, because a “black player” was proven irrelevant. As a fan, there was simply no logic, no statistic that factored in the color of his skin. All that could be measured was whether he was good or bad at the game. And once his talent became obvious, despite the decades of segregation in sports, Robinson’s achievements stood on their own. And then they rewrote history.
So perhaps the coaches and executive personnel who spoke with Sports Illustrated have it wrong. And perhaps it’s why they hid their opinions anonymously. After all, today’s young NFL players, they’re coming to the game from respectable universities where diversity—in race and sexual preferences—is widely varied, and has been for decades. That’s maybe not the case for some of the coaches and administrative staff who still believe it’s a “man’s man” sport. But, just like the Super Bowl commercials this year failed to impress most viewers, perhaps old views about what constitutes a qualified player fail to serve the league too. Maybe the locker room culture actually isn’t that insecure. Maybe the fans aren’t either.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
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