by Anima Adjepong
Missouri senior Michael Sam, who was named 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, told ESPN and the New York Times on Sunday he is gay. Following this announcement the defensive lineman’s NFL draft stock fell from 90 to 160; a decline that means the possibility of being drafted in the first four rounds less likely now. Some have argued that the decline in stock has nothing to do with Sam’s sexuality, but with the way he called attention to it. But the question remains, is the NFL ready for an “openly gay” player? I agree with Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates that the NFL will never be ready for a gay player, but in TNC’s words, “ready or not, here he comes.”
Is the NFL ready for an “openly gay” player? In anonymous interviews with SI.com, eight NFL executives and coaches answered in the negative. Football is still “a man’s-man game” and, according to them, introducing a gay player would make the locker and meeting rooms “chemically imbalanced.” In their candid interviews, these men argued for a status quo that is complicit with homophobia in the locker room; a status quo that ensures that to be a “a man’s-man” is to be normatively heterosexual; argued for their right to play “smear the queer” in the locker room.
The question of the NFL’s preparedness for Sam speaks to the way in which sports, particularly American football, is a heteromasculine space. If all players in the locker room are presumably straight, their homosocial desires are subsumed under a discourse of “just playing” or “no homo.” Within this context, “men’s men” can be free to love each other while at the same time denigrating men who love other men. The presence of an “openly gay” man disrupts this homosocial discourse by revealing its need to exclude other sexual possibilities in order to fashion itself as original and natural (for more on this see Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble).
Is the NFL ready for an “openly gay” player? It remains to be seen how Sam’s announcement will affect his NFL career. However, his decision to come out is meaningful. In his interview with the Times, he commented, “I guess they don’t want to ask a 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman if he was gay or not.” But this 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman is gay. He changes how football fans and players can imagine what it means to be gay. He opens up the possibility for rethinking what it means to be a “man’s-man.” Chris Kluwe is not gay. But he has been vocal about his support for same-sex marriage and claims that this outspokenness resulted in his release from the Minnesota Vikings. He is currently a free agent and it seems the consequences of deviating from a heterosexual norm in football are still dire. And by the way, Jason Collins still remains unemployed.
Is the NFL ready for an “openly gay” player? The sports world has not shrugged at Sam’s announcement the way that they may have about Brittney Griner’s. And this reaction is telling about how women and men’s sport are differently organized with regard to sexuality – that’s that heteromasculinity I mentioned earlier. To repeat TNC’s words, “ready or not…”