When NBA center Jason Collins came out last year, it was the moment the professional sports world had been waiting for -- an athlete currently playing in a major league identifying publicly as gay. But what many may not have known is that the professional sports world were also glad that Collins is 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.
If Collins had any worry about 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. His was a seemingly easy and accepting public coming-out moment.
Except for one thing: Collins has not been signed by an NBA team since. Whether this is due to his age and status as a player, his sexual orientation, or both, is unknown. At any rate, he came out and his playing days ended.
Fast-forward to February 2014. Michael Allen 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 to see if the league is indeed open and accepting of its gay players.
While Goodell has publicly taken a tough stance in stamping out homophobia in the league, demanding "not just tolerance, but acceptance" of its gay players, the coaches, general managers and the testosterone-infused locker room culture are singing a different tune. Behind closed doors and 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 against African Americans and its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
Of course, the official was quoted anonymously, and stated 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. In the military before DADT was repealed, a version of this argument stated that all servicemembers 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 violates the civil rights of heterosexuals, but also causes 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 male athletes to enjoy the homo-social setting of the male locker room that creates male-bonding -- and the physical and emotional intimacy of acts like slaps on the buttocks (check out Key & Peele's "Slap-Ass"), hugging, and kissing on the cheeks -- while such behavior outside of the locker would be easily labeled as gay.
While it is alleged that the "homosexual gaze" would be the root cause for the disruption of team cohesion, it is actually the macho hyper-masculine male heterosexual culture embedded in this locker room milieu.
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's prospects have gone down in the draft. Questions abound if he can play situational pass rusher, or outside linebacker, or if Sam is even the right size to play defensive end in the NFL.
Should no team sign him, the NFL would be sending the message that no time is the right time to be out in football.