BY NORMAN ARCHER
“This is an area where no one in sports should be too proud. Sport has led society in so many critical areas…this is one where we fell behind.”
So said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver while discussing the signing of Jason Collins with the Brooklyn Nets. Recently, Collins became the first publicly gay athlete to play in any of the four major North American pro sports leagues.
Despite being proud of and excited for the seven-foot, 35-year-old center, Commissioner Silver had mixed feelings about the historic moment. “This is so long overdue that I don’t think this should necessarily be on the list of the greatest accomplishments of the NBA,” he said. Silver does however recognize that the Collins signing is definitely a move in the right direction.
“It is a big deal for this league, and hopefully, in the way that sports can uniquely impact society, that this is an area where, for the next Michael Sam, they feel that much more comfortable coming out,” he said. “ And, more importantly, the next high- school player feels comfortable being public about his or her sexuality with his or her teammates.”
While Collins is an off-the-bench role player in the NBA and sufficiently in the terminal part of his career, Michael Sam, an All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year from the University of Missouri, enters NFL Draft this May. If he is signed by a NFL team — and by analysts indication he will be — he would become the first active NFL player to have publicly declared his homosexuality.
Sami Jorgensen, a junior at UNC from Pawling, NY, is a varsity athlete in both cross country and track and field. When asked about Collins and Sam, she explained how their actions were brave considering the stigmas that tend to surround professional sports.
“I think they made it pretty clear when they came out that, for a long time they feared that their status in their sports, as well as their reputation in general, would be tainted if they had revealed themselves sooner,” she says.
Jorgensen continues, “ I honestly think it’s kind of sad that people have to be afraid and hide their true identities when they’re in the limelight because they’re afraid of how their reputation will be affected. Everyone should have the opportunity to be true to themselves.”
Heteronomativity, Homophobia, and Gender in Sports
Between the macho environment of locker rooms and the promotion of hypermasculinity of sportscasters, it can be both uncomfortable and difficult for a player to come out. As the dominant paradigm in sports culture, heteronormativity promotes the intolerance of homosexuality. A recent study by sociologists Osborne and Wagner examined this homophobic attitude in adolescents and showed that males who participated in core sports (football, baseball, basketball, and/or soccer) were nearly three times more likely to hold homophobic attitudes than other peers their age.
The use of masculinity and machismo when describing sports culture further perpetuates the idea that sports are part of a man’s world. While Collins was the first active publicly gay male to come out in major American sports, he was more than 30 years behind pro tennis player Billie Jean King. King, who won 39 Gran Slam titles over her career, paved the way for WNBA players such as Sheryl Swoopes and Seimone Augustus, and soccer players such as Megan Rapinoe. A month before Collins came out, Brittney Griner, the top pick in the WNBA draft, came out informally, and the sports world hardly blinked an eye.
The dichotomy of the reactions to Griner and Collins/Sam is telling of the way that the media and society perceive sports, masculinity, and sexuality. A physically strong, heterosexual man who excels at sports and has relationships with women is socially aligned with traditional views of sexuality and masculinity. Change his relationships with women to relationships with men and the notion that masculinity and heterosexuality are inexplicably linked is challenged. As it turns out, being gay does not make a man passive or athletically feeble.
If, in society’s eyes, it is not feminine to excel at sports, then the equation for normality is flipped. A woman who participates in sports defies gender norms, and a woman’s success in a male-dominated field makes her subject to assumptions about her sexuality based on her body and skill. While Collins and Sam challenge the strict adherence to masculine gender norms, Griner’s orientation only confirms the idea that successful athletic women deviate from the physical and sexual assumptions associated with being feminine.
In the media, a male athlete’s sexual orientation is often more likely to be a bigger story than what he does on the court or field; for female athletes, the understatement of coming out and its resulting acceptance is sign of greater tolerance, but it is not without lingering and unfair stereotypes.
The different issues that men and women’s sports have with homosexuality are both rooted in heteronormativity. The idea that being gay makes it impossible to be an athlete and that being an athlete, whether gay or not, makes it impossible to be a woman are equally false.
LGTBQ Athletes at the Collegiate Level
For a perspective on how sports and culture are integrated, look now further than the Dean Dome, Franklin Street, or the Carolina blue t-shirt that a student passing by is inevitably wearing.
In addition to being hailed as a basketball “Mecca,” Chapel Hill is know as a welcoming place of great tolerance for the LGBTQ community. As an institution, UNC includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in it Non-Discrimination Policy. So why are there so few college athletes out?
“I think it’s just a carryover from the stigmas of professional sports that influences collegiate athletes… I hope that with the general shift in acceptance within society that athletes are feeling more comfortable with coming out if that’s what they would like,” Jorgenson explains.
Some would point to the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) as the real problem. Former NBA player John Amaechi, who came out after his pro career ended, has been outspoken about this issue. “[The NCAA] maintain separate behaviors for sports that we would never deem acceptable anywhere else,” Ameachi said, “Colleges are complicit. College sports are a space where homophobic slurs, physical and psychological abuse are not only acceptable but considered normal.”
Take Rutgers University, where head basketball Mike Rice was fired after video surfaced of him physically and verbally abusing his college players, including using homophobic slurs. In light of such events, the NCAA has recently started to focus on LGTBQ inclusion, however the organization still has no power to enforce sanctions over homophobic behavior. If a student-athlete feels he or she has been discriminated against then they can either take legal action of go through their universities administrative process. NCAA guidelines for inclusion of LGTBQ student-athletes are solely voluntary and administrators, coaches, and players are not mandated to follow or even read the guidelines.
But UNC is taking strides towards acceptance and equality. At the end of last semester, UNC joined the You Can Play Project (YCPP), a movement dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. The YCPP focuses on judging athlete on what they contribute to the sport and their team’s success, promoting that “if you have a skill, if you have work ethic, if you can skate, pass, shoot, run, hump, hit, row, or play – then you can play”
The video features a diverse group of varsity athletes, including J.P. Tokoto and Nate Britt from men’s basketball and football players Shakeel Rashad, Allen Champagne, Jon Heck and Jarrod James. “It is important for all LGBT students athletes to be accepted by the people they spend most of their time with,” Britt says in the video.
If You Can Play You Should Play
Slowly but surely, a new generation of open-mindedness is granting civil rights to persons identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ). In fact, a majority of Americans see gay and lesbian relations as morally acceptable; this is a substantial shift from what was a minority view at the turn of century.
With this newfound tolerance comes some adversity. While same-sex marriage in now legal in 17 states in the US, it is officially banned in 33. Despite this imbalance, a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, indicating the direction of its impending legality nation-wide.
Culture, like sports, is an individual and collective process, and it continually being remade. Inseparable from politics, religions, and even biology, sport culture is an excellent indicator for a social mindset, and it clear that with regard to homosexuality, the tide is beginning to turn.