Instant historicism plagues sports. But, we can reasonably conclude February 2014 was the gayest month in American sports history.
Missouri’s star defensive lineman Michael Sam came out in the buildup to the NFL Combine. Already-out Jason Collins signed with the Brooklyn Nets, checked in and became the first active, openly gay male in a “big four” sport. The biggest story entering the 2014 Olympics was Russian state-sponsored homophobia. The most enduring memory exiting the Olympics was Johnny Weir’s sartorial dominance.
Landmarks were hit. “History” was made. But it all fell flatter than most anticipated. Sam’s Combine “circus” had neither clowns nor elephants. It was just a bloated press conference. While Jason Collins set his first pick as an openly gay player, our readers were far more intrigued by Danica Patrick slamming into a wall at Daytona.
These developments felt sort of insignificant, largely because professional sports lag so far behind the rest of American society. There is broad support for gay marriage. There is broader support, even among some devout Christians, for treating gay people with dignity outside of marriage. “Will the gays disrupt the workplace?” is a question relegated to America’s radical fringes, such as Arizona and Kansas. Unlike race where they were a progressive force, Major American sports are trying to catch up on gay rights.
Feeling insignificant, however, is far from being insignificant. We prefer to believe, while chastising countries such as Russia and Uganda, we have surpassed a person’s sexual orientation being news. Outside the sports media Twitter clique, we haven’t. While society has progressed beyond the point where a “gay Jackie Robinson” would be needed, true equality still remains distant. The responses sparked by the courage of Sam, Collins and others could have a profound impact both within and outside sports.
The NFL has had outspoken allies, such as Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, raise gay rights issues. Major leagues routinely give top-down expressions of tolerance and support. Slurs have been stamped out and punished. But what we’ve seen the past month, given the new concrete reality of openly gay athletes, is strong public support from active players, from former players and from coaches. That’s new and potentially more influential.
The broadening of the discussion should effect organic, internal change. Familiarity breeds affinity. The idea of a gay player may be scarier to some than encountering a gay player. Most “locker room” behavior, homophobic or otherwise, stems from peer pressure. Having this many players and coaches come forward alters perception of where the herd is. Whether it is conforming or just fear of outside ostracism, homophobic behavior should be weeded out. Genuine enlightenment is seldom the engine for reforming social mores.
What happens in locker rooms will affect change outside them. Sports have a powerful passive social influence. Football in particular, considering ritual and social cohesion, could be viewed as the largest religion in the country. There’s no real metric to capture the precise influence it has. When Dabo Swinney, for example, comes out and says he played with gay players at Alabama, he has undoubtedly coached gay players at Clemson and it is not a big deal, that reaches people, probably more locally than any South Carolina politician.
This story is not over. Jason Collins being welcomed by a coach (former teammate) and locker room (stocked with former teammates) in notably tolerant Brooklyn is not an ideal case study. Michael Sam still has to be drafted, to make a team and to subsist in a locker room with five times as many players as an NBA one. Notably, gay colleagues in both leagues have not yet flocked to join them.
It’s not clear how or how quickly things will move forward for gay male athletes in major sports. But, after the events of the past February, it’s clear they are moving forward. The dike can no longer be plugged.
[Photo via USAT Sports]