In and “Out” of the Game: Combating Homophobia in Professional Sports

Raymond Ortiz
The Social and Global Justice Project

On April 29, 2013, NBA free agent Jason Collins, who played for the Washington Wizards, publicly came out as gay—the first male athlete active on a major American sports team to do so. Numerous prominent basketball players, including Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, showed their support for Collins and the progress he made for the gay rights movement.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s hearings about the legality of same-sex marriage, a larger obstacle still exists that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) men and women must overcome in order to gain equality under the law and the eyes of society. As a whole, professional sports represent a final barrier, one that victimizes gay Americans—specifically men. Why is this? How does masculinity tie with the symbolism of sports? Is overcoming inequality in athletics more important than campaigning for equality under the law?

Other athletes have come out before Collins, yet have not received the same praise. Recently, Brittney Griner, the number one draft pick for the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), publicly came out as lesbian on April 17, 2013. While women’s professional sports continue to accept—even welcome—lesbian and bisexual players, the male domain overwhelmingly does not. Collins, though an active player, is a free agent and has yet been signed for the new season. How will his outing affect his career long term? Will sports executives feel pressured to keep him signed so they do not look bad? Countless professional male athletes wait until they get waived, released, or retire to openly discuss their sexuality.

Sports embody traditional, hetero-normative masculinity in mainstream American culture. In Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel argues that they “[enable] men to bond in a pure homosocial [sic] free of the taint of women’s presence. It offers the solace of masculine purity…” Sports do more than simply provide physically aggressive entertainment; they legitimize an individual’s masculinity. He claims they provide the easiest means to choose “guy” over “gay,” ultimately a reassurance for men. Essentially, sports epitomize the antithesis to homosexuality. Guys use sports, whether playing or watching, to project the socially accepted idea about their gender identity. This ideology that our society places on sports goes back many generations and becomes ingrained in our minds at a young age. Today, widespread controversy about LGBT players primarily emerges from football—arguably the defining sport for hetero-normative masculinity in our culture.

According to Kimmel, three major components of the male sub-culture define manhood that men learn as boys: entitlement, silence, and protection. Entitlement specifies the socially given-right for men to assert their authority and status over others; silence details stoicism, or forbearance of expressing emotion; and protection defines the brotherhood and preservation of heterosexual male-exclusivity. Sports, namely football, encompass these three elements that carry into a man’s outlook on gender and sexual performance. However, masculinity and physical aggression do not exclusively belong to heterosexual athletes.

In 2013, claims made by draft prospects reveal that the National Football League (NFL) screens their hopefuls through a series of questions about one’s sexual orientation. This includes Colorado tight-end Nick Kasa and Michigan quarterback/receiver Denard Robinson. Both men stated that NFL interviewers asked them about their martial status, desire for a family, and sexual preference. Why should a man’s personal relations determine his eligibility to play? Why does the dichotomy between masculinity and femininity, or heterosexuality and homosexuality, have any role in professional sports?

In the United States, there are four major professional sports dominated by men: football, basketball, hockey, and baseball. Why then is the outing of male athletes in football equally, if not more so, important for the gay-rights movement and for outing in other professional sports? Football is the quintessential manifestation of authentic Americana. It validates manhood, bonds men, acts as a common language, and divides the male realm from the female sphere. Consequently, gay players rarely disclose their sexual orientation until their retirement. Esera Tuaolo, former NFL defensive tackle, publicly came out after nine years with the league. On HBO’s Real Sports, he discussed the homophobia and animosity he faced from peers and executives. Tuaolo now serves on the Gay and Lesbian Athletics Foundation to combat these issues. As a brand name, the NFL is the highest-grossing and most-recognized professional sports association in the United States. Gay-rights activists need closeted football players, like Tuaolo, to come out while still playing under contract in order to end prejudice in an extremely influential, media-driven industry that unknowingly defines maleness.

What about women? Why, as conveyed by the media, do LGBT female athletes not appear groundbreaking? The answer: women play gender-appropriated sports. A woman in professional athletics is a relatively new conception to sports. For generations, physically aggressive play has been long-attributed to men; women historically partook, albeit socially designated, in activities of the feminine mystique, such as dance, cheerleading, the fine arts, or “graceful” sports like gymnastics. Under Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, no person shall be denied the right to participate in sports based on sex. While today’s women engage in the professional realm, they remain separate. Specifically, they do not typically partake in football, which remains almost exclusive to men. Americans do not expect women to prove their femininity in the same way that men do. Men, from an early age, continuously strive to prove their masculinity to society—and each other. Thus, they do not share the same social fears and anxieties.

Like Collins, closeted male athletes, namely in football, need to publicly come out for the greater good and not choose the money, fame, and recognition that comes with hiding their sexual orientations. They need to come out while they are active players signed to a team in order to gain any measure of credibility. While professional basketball is highly profitable and recognized, football is the foremost game that will lead to major change across all other sports. LGBT female athletes are not given the same applause and media acknowledgment as athletes like Collins because, quite frankly, no one cares. Professional sports still remain a male-dominated industry, in its athletes, executives, and targeted audience.

Men like Tuaolo cannot wait until their retirement or dismissal to publicly come out. Keyword: publicly. They must take the risk as Collins and Griner did. Openly gay male athletes, while highly applauded, live their lives openly with their family, friends, and even spouses. The problem is not their decision to keep it private. Rather, the issue is that they lied. They projected a false image that has hindered—and continues to hinder—the gay rights movement and how Americans viewed, and still do, the LGBT community as a whole. It is time for all gay athletes to stop hiding who they really are because they are only causing more damage than good. If athletes in the almighty football industry follow in the footsteps of Collins, then other professional sports will follow with the same encouragement—guaranteed.

Overcoming homophobia in football is of equal weight to same-sex legislation. Football sets a standard that other sports follow. If sports act as a determinant for manhood, then it proves problematic for gay men who are ultimately not seen on the same level as straight players. Gay men are seen as lesser men based on their sexuality. Federal statutes alone do not guarantee social justice.

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