Beyond Bro Hugs and Open Doors: That Kiss

The Rams choosing Michael Sam was the door opening. Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team. But, what about sports culture? And what about the way that football players are allowed to be public men in this country?
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"There are a LOT of bro hugs in this draft!" That was my 10-year-old daughter's assessment after the first-night coverage of the NFL draft. And she was right. There were a lot of bro hugs. A lot of men hugging other men -- sort of. A lot of hugging in that way that involved as little touching for as little time as possible. That first round of new pro football players practically had a mandatory receiving line of supporters' bro hugs standing between them and their new team jerseys as they triumphantly took to the stage at Radio City Music Hall.

Finally, after three long days and almost seven full rounds of the draft, the bro hug became something else. That kiss. That Michael Sam kiss. In those few days, the public story went from "Michael Sam will make history," to "Why hasn't Michael Sam been drafted yet?!" to "Michael Sam is a St. Louis Ram!" to "That kiss!!" And that's where the story landed -- and that's where it's been ever since.

There it was on ESPN: An emotional Sam receiving the call from the Rams while his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, stood right beside him holding his hand, embracing him, crying with him, kissing him. I have to say that I loved that kiss immediately. And I loved that it aired on early-evening national TV. A pro football player kissing his boyfriend on ESPN. There -- after days of bro hugs -- was male affection and tenderness, two guys really kissing, right there for all football fans to see.

As I watched the video again and read the many, many posts and articles responding to the Rams' choice and to ESPN's footage, I thought about New York University law professor Kenji Yoshino's idea of covering. In his 2006 book by that name, Yoshino extends an idea from sociologist Erving Goffman, an idea about how stigmatized people go through the world. Yoshino writes that people who have a stigmatized identity either face conversion pressure, they try to pass as something other than that identity, or they cover that identity. The covering strategy is not a complete negation of one's identity. It is, rather, a way to downplay that identity. Covering is, as Yoshino writes, a way to "tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream."

Yoshino writes of the covering imperative: "Outsiders are included, but only if we behave like insiders -- that is, only if we cover." But no minority who has been historically excluded from an institution only wants that institution to open its doors, reluctantly in the seventh round or otherwise. The door opening is the least the institution can do. It signifies that a roadblock to entry has been removed but it signals nothing about institutional cultural change. Any historically-excluded minority also wants institutions to change once the doors open -- they want to change those institutions so that they can be themselves once they enter. They do not want to pass or cover, to trade their entry for their identity.

The Rams choosing Michael Sam was the door opening. Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team. But, what about sports culture? And what about the way that football players are allowed to be public men in this country?

This story is just beginning. Support rolled in for Sam and for the way he celebrated his new job with his boyfriend. But there was also a lot of ugliness: Anti-gay comments made from viewers -- as well as a few players -- often from behind the relative anonymity of their Twitter feeds. As we see more pro male athletes in team sports come out and walk through newly-opened doors, it could be the case that they feel they need to cover at work. They could feel pressure to downplay their stigmatized identities -- pressure to avoid talking about their relationships to teammates, pressure to leave their partners at home during team family events or to not show genuine affection to those partners in public or pressure to decline to be public advocates for LGBTQ social change.

We don't know yet what the covering pressures might be for Sam or other openly-gay male athletes in these major team sports. We do have one indication that covering is not an absolute imperative. Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins talked recently -- in an interview with LGBTQ advocate and Super Bowl champion Brendon Ayanbadejo -- about the fact that he has included his boyfriend on some Nets road trips and that he has been able to "live... life fully" and no longer has the stress of having to "hide" parts of himself.

The public attention to Sam's kiss is one indication that the conversation from now on about gay and bisexual male inclusion in these last frontiers -- like pro team sports -- will move fairly quickly from a conversation about opening doors to a conversation about changing institutions and cultures. It will be a conversation about the covering imperative. It will be a conversation about whether the culture of sports and our broader popular culture can change. It will be a conversation about whether our culture can expand to include a pro football player kissing his boyfriend on ESPN for all the world to see, or whether we're stuck with bro hugs as the only acceptable public form of male affection.

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