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.
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.”
According to the privacy rationale argument, the “homosexual gaze” in same-sex nudity does more than disrupt unit cohesion. It 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.
LGBTQ 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 are afloat as to whether 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.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist.