When NBA center Jason Collins came out last year, it was the moment that the professional sports world had been waiting for: a male athlete currently playing in a major sports league coming out publicly as gay. What many may not have known is that the professional sports world had also hoped it would be an African-American male. The African-American community and the worlds of professional football and basketball (which predominantly comprise a brotherhood of men of African descent) desperately needed an openly gay male professional athlete, one who would bravely dispel the myth that there are no queer athletes in those sports and assist his respective league in its attempts to denounce homophobic epithets, bullying and discrimination. With Jason Collins the NBA got its great black hope.
If Collins had any worries about what his coming out would do to him career-wise, he didn't say. When he came out last year, he was 34 and had been in the sport since 2001. His was a seemingly easy and widely accepted public coming-out moment -- except for one point: He still has not been signed by an NBA team. Whether this is because of his age and his status as a player or his sexual orientation (or both) is unknown. At any rate, he came out, and his playing days ended.
Now Michael Alan Sam Jr., the 24-year-old former defensive lineman for the University of Missouri, has come out, and the NFL potentially has its own great black hope.
On the surface, the public response to Sam's coming out by the league has been 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.
The official NFL statement added:
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, who is awaiting the NFL draft in May, his coming out will be the true litmus test of whether the league is indeed open and accepting of gay players.
While the NFL commissioner has publicly taken a tough stance against homophobia in the league, calling for "not just tolerance but acceptance of people's differences," coaches and general managers are singing a different tune. From behind the closed doors of the testosterone-infused locker room, the homophobic murmurings of the NFL have come out publicly (if anonymously). Commenting on Sam's announcement, an unnamed NFL player's personal assistant flat-out stated, "I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," adding that the sport is "still a man's-man game." An assistant coach fallaciously explained -- anonymously, of course -- that gay players are a distraction and a disruption to the dynamics of team cohesion and locker-room morale, saying:
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.
This argument is eerily reminiscent of justifications for the U.S. military's past discrimination against African Americans, not to mention its "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy regarding sexual orientation. In the context of DADT, this argument implied that heterosexual service members are justified in fearing gay men seeing their naked bodies. It's the "privacy" argument, according to which the "homosexual gaze" in nude situations does more than disrupt unit cohesion: Its supposedly predatory nature expresses sexual yearning and desire for unwilling subjects that not only violates the rights of heterosexuals but causes them untoward psychological and emotional trauma.
The hypermasculine posturing of many NFL players, with their ritualized repudiation of LGBTQ people and their denigration of women, allows them to feel safe in the locker room by maintaining the myth that all the guys gathered there are heterosexual, and that sexual attraction among them just does not exist. This myth allows homophobic athletes to enjoy the homosocial setting of the locker room and the physical and emotional intimacy that goes on among them in that setting, displayed as homoerotic slaps on the buttocks (while we're on that topic, check out comedians Key and Peele's skit "Slap-Ass"), hugging, and kissing on the cheeks -- while such behavior easily would be labeled "gay" outside the locker room.
While these athletes believe that the "homosexual gaze" would disrupt team cohesion, the macho, hypermasculine, homophobic culture of the locker room already accomplishes this. Closeted LGBTQ athletes (like Michael Sam was, once upon a time) 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 public silence on their sexual orientation so that their identity does not tarnish the rest of the team.
Already, rumors have it that Sam has gone down in the NFL draft. Commentators wonder aloud whether he can play situational pass rusher or outside linebacker, or whether he is of the NFL's requisite size to play defensive end.
Should no team sign him, the NFL is sending the message that no time is the right time to be out in this sport.