Coming out of the closet.
This is a trend in athletics that has caught many off guard, some not so much. One thing is for sure, though, that the announcements of high profile players that they are gay has stirred plenty of debate and commentary across the board. Some are for the announcements, some against.
The more troubling trend, though, are the naysayers who claim, vociferously, to not care either way. I know. I was one of those people. As a former college football player, I didn’t care whether any of the linemen that protected my quarterback were white, pink, purple, black, straight or gay.
Then, as I was driving home Thursday night, I asked myself about my own motives in those protestations. I wondered aloud if the issue is not the sexuality itself, but how we on the receiving end of the message perceive its intent.
Yes, these are football (and basketball) players and all that should matter is their performance on the field. But then a strange question popped into my head, and the answer I gave myself showed me why my initial thoughts were simply wrong. I did not get it, and neither do most.
When Brent Musberger became fascinated, almost creepily, with A.J. McCarron’s girlfriend at the time, we were not offended by her picture. In fact, most ‘red-blooded’ American men secretly agreed with Musburger; she was very beautiful. The football fans, that inner Neanderthal inside us all would have also called her “hot.” It’s what most men watching thought.
In other articles inside Sports Illustrated and other sports journals, many times a question is asked about the players celebrity crush. No one winces at the answers. No one says “I don’t care” — they do care and they read and determine what kind of “taste” the player has in women. What if a player said “Well, I think Justin Timberlake is hot, he’s my celebrity crush?”
Honestly, you know what would happen. False protestations voiced everywhere we can imagine that ‘we don’t care about that stuff.’ Well, we do.
Further compounding the issue surrounding sexuality in football especially is the level of machismo that is a part of the football culture. It is thicker than Alabama mud. When Jonathan Martin exposed the harassment that had been directed at him, some were appalled, but a majority of people secretly, some more publicly, ridiculed Martin for not being “tough” he was not being a “man.” He was called a “sissy” by plenty of people. As children growing up, anyone who was not able to throw well was said to ‘throw like a girl’ and was also called a sissy. Being ‘feminine’ had no place on the football field.
I would like to say that the people talking about Martin in such mannerisms were the minority, or the uneducated, or just simpleton fans. Unfortunately, this attitude extended not only to his own team mates but his own coaches, his own management in the Dolphins front office. Think about those terms for a minute and let them sink in. His “manhood” was questioned. Even worse, commentators versed in sports programming were mimicking these thoughts. They perpetuated the stereotypes. Some of the same commentators who now applaud these announcements ridiculed Martin’s ‘manhood’ last year.
So much of football is wrapped in a misogynistic stereotype of masculinity that it becomes difficult to unravel what is necessary to compete on the field and what is left over from a different time.
You say you don’t care. Then why were so many people disgusted when Michael Sam kissed his significant other after being drafted? Did anyone respond with that kind of vile and vulgar disgust when McCarron kissed Katherine Webb? Would anyone be upset if Marcus Mariota named Mila Kunis as his celebrity crush if asked? Would anyone say ‘we don’t care’ about that?
When the Eagles’ Riley Cooper dropped a specific derogatory racial epithet last summer, he was roundly criticized as he should have been — his actions and words were despicable. Had he used that language on a consistent basis during practice, in the manner which he used it (derogatorily), there would have been hell to pay in the locker room.
Now think about a different word. “Faggot.” It is a constant in many places, especially in the locker room. If you are gay, this word is just as demeaning, just as derogatory as any racial epithet. A constant reminder that you, as a gay man in that locker room, are not worthy.
Sam, Jason Collins and now Chip Sarafin are speaking out, not because they want you to care about their sexuality, but because they want you to no longer care about sexuality at all. No longer should they have to hide in corners keeping their lives a secret, afraid of what people will think.
The culture inside locker rooms has been far too offensive for far too long. These announcements are not about sexuality; they are about a changing world, a changing demographic. The sports world has stuck to the past with the concept of tradition for many years. Change of any type in sports is fought tooth and nail by traditionalists. But football and sports are changing.
I once thought that I did not care about the sexuality of players. I was wrong. I applaud these men for their courage. They are tired of the negativity. For football players who happen to be gay, it’s not about sexuality, it is about dignity. They have reclaimed their own dignity and now have opened up the world for everyone to reclaim theirs.
Top photo: Wikimedia