When NBA center Jason Collins came out last year, it was the moment the professional sports world had been waiting for — a gay athlete currently playing in a major league who comes out publicly.
And what many may not have known is that the professional sports world had also hoped it would be an African-American male.
What the African-American community and the professional sports world of football and basketball (which is comprised of a brotherhood of predominantly men of African descent) desperately needed was an openly gay male professional athlete. One who would bravely dispel the myth that there are no queer athletes in those sports, while assisting the NFL and NBA leagues in their attempts to denounce homophobic epithets, bullying and discrimination.
With Jason Collins, the NBA got their Great Black Hope.
And if Collins had any worry of what his coming out moment would do to him career-wise he didn’t say. He was 34 and had been in the sport since 2001 when he came out last year. His was a seemingly easy and accepting public coming out moment. Except for one point, Collins has not been signed by an NBA team. Whether this is due to his age and status as a player, or his sexual orientation, or both, is unknown. At any rate, he came out and his playing days ended.
Michael Allan Sam Jr. has come out, and the NFL has their Great Black Hope.
On the surface, the public support of Sam by the league is overwhelmingly positive.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said, “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
In April 2013, Commissioner Roger Goodell sent the NFL’s sexual orientation anti-discrimination and harassment policy to all club presidents, coaches and general managers who made it available to all players and staff."
But for Sam, the 24-year-old defensive end, awaiting the NFL draft in May, his coming out will be the true litmus test if the league is indeed open and accepting of its gay players.
While NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has publicly taken a tough stance in stamping out homophobia in the league, stating "not just tolerance, but acceptance" of its gay players, it's, however, coaches, general managers and the testosterone-infused locker room culture espousing a different tune.
Behind closed doors, turned-off mics, unnamed personnel, and anonymous quotes the homophobic murmurings of the NFL have come out publicly.
Immediately commenting on Sam’s announcement, an NFL assistant coach flat out stated, “that football is still a man’s-man game.”
Another assistant coach fallaciously explained how gay players are a distraction and disruption to the dynamics of team cohesion and locker room morale. This argument is eerily reminiscent of the military’s racial discrimination of African-Americans and its “Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy (DADT).”
He was quoted anonymously, of course, stating the following:
“There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that…. 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."
The privacy rationale implied in this quote is similar to what the military once upheld. And it's another argument that advocates for the banning of LGBT athletes. With the military before DADT was repealed this argument stated that all service members have the right to maintain at least partial control over the exposure of their bodies and intimate bodily functions. In other words, heterosexual men deserve the right to control who sees their naked bodies.
According to the privacy rationale argument, the “homosexual gaze” in same-sex nudity does more than disrupt unit cohesion. Its supposedly predatory nature expresses sexual yearning and desire for unwilling subjects that not only violate the civil rights of heterosexuals, but also cause untoward psychological and emotional trauma.
The hyper-masculine posturing of these NFL players with their ritualized repudiation of LGBTQ people and denigration of women allows these homophobic athletes to feel safe in the locker room by maintaining the myth that all the guys gathered on their teams are heterosexual, and sexual attraction among them just does not exist.
Also, this myth allows homophobic athletic men to enjoy the homo-social setting of the male locker room that creates male-bonding — and the physical and emotional intimacy that goes on among them displayed as slaps on the buttocks (check out comedians Key and Peele skit "slap ass"), hugging, and kissing on the cheeks in a homoerotic context ― while such behavior outside of the locker would be easily labeled as gay.
While it is believed that the “homosexual gaze” would be the root cause for the disruption of the team cohesion, it is actually the macho hyper-masculine male heterosexual culture embedded in this locker room milieu.
LGBT athletes, like Sam, must constantly monitor how they are being perceived by teammates, coaches, endorsers and the media in order to avoid suspicion. They are expected to maintain a public silence and decorum so that their identity does not tarnish the rest of the team.
Already, rumors have it that Sam has gone down in the draft. Questions afloat if he can play situational pass rusher, or outside linebacker. Or, if Sam is the NFL’s requisite size to play defensive end.
Should no team sign him on, the NFL is sending the message that no time is the right time to be out in this sport.
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The Rev. Irene Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist who appears in SDGLN, The Huffington Post and other media. She was chosen in October 2009 by MSNBC as one of "10 black women you should know." Monroe has been profiled in O, The Oprah Magazine and in the Gay Pride episode of “In the Life" TV, a segment that was nominated for an educational Emmy. Several times she has received the Harvard University certificate of distinction in teaching. She is in the film, "For the Bible Tells Me So," and is profiled in "CRISIS: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing up Gay in America." Visit her website here .