NFL prospect Michael Sam of the University of Missouri will become the first openly gay active player in the league if he is drafted and/or makes the roster of an NFL team for the 2014 season. An All-America and All-SEC defensive end on for the SEC runner up Tigers, Sam would likely project to be drafted in the first three rounds, assuming good results from his Pro Day workouts as well as at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
There have been other gay players in pro football, of course, going back to the golden age of the game. No less a legendary figure than Vince Lombardi adamantly restricted verbal abuse of a gay player by either coaches or players. Several players, such as David Kopay, Esera Tuaolo and Kwame Harris are other players who have acknowledged their sexual preference after their playing days. Recently, some members of the 1993 Houston Oilers team revealed that two teammates carried on an affair that was an open secret to the players, but kept hidden from the media.
Is easy to see why some have kept their sexuality hidden. We’ve seen recent examples from prominent players in San Francisco and New Orleans-which might just be two of the most if not the two most- ‘gay’ friendly major cities in the country that a gay player would not be welcomed with open arms. Further, we should recognize that our entire culture, not to mention the hyper competitive and regulated violent endeavor of pro football, assumes heterosexuality, particularly in males. There are many other, more innocuous, examples of societal assumption. The left handed among us need not be convinced that society assumes everyone is a righty any more than those who are taller or more stout than average need be told that the makers of airplane cabins (at least in coach class) seem unaware of their existence.
These examples of societal assumption are brought up to demonstrate clearly that assumptions are made because, in most instances, they need to be made. But, why is that so true in professional sports in general and football in particular? Actually, when we really think about it, the primary reason is that we think we need to make these assumptions because we think they’ve “always” been made. This article was started with a reference to homosexual players of the past because, for this writer at least, the journey out of the abyss of bigotry came during the debate about gays in the military. Once the obvious was realized, that gays had fought and served honorably in the US military for years, the logic behind exclusion melted away quickly and the realization that prejudice was the only thing propping up resistance was clear.
Which brings us to the point of this article: the negative reaction(s) that you have heard and will hear from people about Sam’s sexuality and his proclamation of it are not fueled so much by prejudice against him, but by doubt and feelings about what acceptance of a homosexual athlete would say about themselves. Football, particularly professional football, is unquestionably our nation’s most popular sport and also the most uniquely “American” of the major sports. For many, the sport embodies things that are otherwise frowned upon in society such as the glorification of violence and the imposition of will by the strong at the expense of the weak. Floating just under the surface is the issue of sexuality. The assumption of exceptional virility permeates the athletes who play the sport with the sultry female cheerleaders employed by most teams serving as a thinly veiled aphrodisiac. This all helps to create a culture of inadequately defined machismo around the sport and many of its fans. Think about it: how many times have you heard a fellow football fan talk about “fighting through pain” (it’s easy for most of us to be tough when it comes to ignoring the pain of someone else) or describing a good player as a “man”? Probably dozens of times, if not hundreds. For males of my generation, it was common for coaches to motivate by calling players a “girl” or a “woman” or a slang term for a specific part of the female anatomy as if that, in and of itself, made you something less than you should be or that there was shame in being less than overwhelmingly masculine.
So, with pro football being identified-if just superficially- as masculinity on steroids (often literally), it is clear that many of its most ardent fans see their own masculinity to some degree in the fact that they love football. Their playing days, if any, may be long in the past but there is comfort in knowing that they participated in the ultimate masculine sport, a “man’s game” as some would say. It’s just going to be difficult for some of these fans to get their heads around the fact that a gay man could not only play football, but play it exceptionally well at the highest level in the toughest conference in major college competition. This shakes one of their core beliefs about the sport they love and, in turn, shakes their belief in themselves to some degree. Taking it further, will some of these types of fans be comfortable with an openly gay man playing for their favorite team? How will they respond to such a man being on the opposing team and, goodness forbid, if this gay man beats a player on their team on a given play will they be able to view it in any context other than an attack on the masculinity that makes football such a great sport?
The answers to those and the many other questions that will arise will vary according to each individual fan. Understand that many of them don’t know that they have this prejudice, they will legitimately claim that their only issue with Sam is that he is putting his sexual preference “in their face”, which is really just showing that they wished they could still pretend he was heterosexual in a sport that was, in their mind, previously 100% heterosexual. Certainly, a fair argument can be made that a big fuss should not be made about this but that ignores that one of the primary reasons that Sam gave for making this announcement at this time: the questions he was getting during his time at the Senior Bowl and his desire to control his own narrative. Of course, many who will comment on blog posts and websites and criticize Sam for making a big deal out of his sexual preference are effectively making a big deal out of it by bringing negativity to the conversation. Also, many who will oppose Sam will genuinely rely on their interpretation of the directions of their faith (they should not be confused with bigots who selectively and knowingly use faith as a shield for their hatred) while tacitly ignoring greed, fornication, envy and other vices, if not approving of them, in the context of the aura of pro football.
Michael Sam will pay a price, literally and figuratively, for his actions in coming out as a gay man as he seeks to enter the NFL. Many fans will accept him, both loudly and otherwise, as many will choose to oppose him to varying degrees. Just remember that, in most cases, whether or not a fan-or a teammate or opposing player- vocally disapproves or approves of an openly gay player in pro football will have little to do with the SEC Defensive player of the year from Missouri and much more to do with how he perceives his attitude towards Mr. Sam reflects on him.