The American sports world is abuzz with conversation about LBGTIQA athletes. Last May, Jason Collins, a journeyman NBA basketball player, announced in a Sports Illustrated article that he was gay, becoming the first male athlete to do so in any of the four major professional sports in America. Then, this past February he became the first openly gay athlete to ever play in a game when, after being signed by the Brooklyn Nets to a ten day contract, Collins played eleven minutes against the Los Angeles Lakers on February 23, 2014.
While Collins’ announcement was certainly newsworthy, it was Michael Sam’s coming out that sent the sports world into media frenzy. Sam, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year out of Missouri, came out to ESPN’s Outside the Lines on February 9, 2014. While he had come out to his teammates in August 2013, this was the first time he had publicly acknowledged his sexuality. Sam’s decision was immediately noteworthy for one simple fact: he was an NFL draft prospect. No athlete had ever come out publicly before entering a professional league. This made Sam, who was a good but not great draft prospect, the talk of the upcoming May NFL draft. Days were spent covering anything from Sam’s impact in the league, to his skill on the field, and even to what it would be like to shower with him. Attention was drawn away from star prospects like Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney and instead focused on a mid to late round draft pick. Many viewed this as an opportunity for the sporting world to begin accepting and acknowledging male athletes of all sexual orientations.
What has come out of the debate, however, is nothing short of disheartening. While Sam has been applauded by many and shown his strength of character throughout the process, there are those who do not see it fit for an openly gay man to play football. One NFL player personnel assistant told Sports Illustrated when the Michael Sam story broke, “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.” To further go along the lines of a “man’s-man game”, Peter King of Sports Illustrated interviewed numerous NFL General Managers, all of whom agreed that Sam will suffer in terms of his draft prospects because of his sexuality. As one general manager told Mr. King, if a team is trying to decide between Sam and another player, “[Sexuality] will break a tie against that player [Sam]. Every time.”
All of this comes in light of the tragedy coming out of the Miami Dolphins locker room over the past couple months concerning the bullying of Jonathan Martin by Ritchie Incognito, and to a lesser degree, Mike Pouncey. All of these incidences have been a direct condemnation of the NFL locker room, that is “still stuck in the ‘50s”, as one NFL scout put it. A few bad apples have spoiled the whole batch. While many NFL and other professional athletes have been supportive of gay athletes in sports, the media has latched on to a select few quotes portraying the environment as unfriendly and not progressive.
The European sports world is also not immune to a perceived culture of homophobia. European soccer has been a bastion for examples of anti-LBGTIQA activism. Bayern Munich, for example, faces a fine upwards of $83,000 for a fan’s homophobic banner, displayed against Arsenal. The sign read, “Gay Gunners”, depicting Mesut Ozil, a member of the German national team and of Arsenal, with a cannon pointed at Ozil’s bare bottom.
Another example of closed mindedness in soccer is FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s 2010 comments about homosexuality in regards to Qatar being named the host site of the 2020 World Cup. Qatar is one of many countries both in the Middle East and in the surrounding area that criminalize any signs of homosexuality, whether they are present or implied. Blatter’s comments for any LBGTIQA’s interested in attending the World Cup were callous: “[Gays] should refrain from sexual activity”, Mr. Blatter said with a smile in his FIFA news conference. Many viewed his comments as insensitive and derogatory and Mr. Blatter later apologized, but doubled down on his position when Qatar announced its policy toward homosexuality in May 2013 as one of a “moral or ethical issue”, stating that he did not see how it ran counter to FIFA’s policy of zero discrimination. His support for Russia’s 2018 successful bid for the World Cup was also viewed scornfully, given Russia’s anti-LBGTIQA policies.
In addition, of the few athletes to come out in the world of European soccer, many have spoken of the fear they felt of living as non-out athletes. Robbie Rogers, now playing for the Los Angeles Galaxy, briefly retired in 2013 because he did not feel comfortable coming out as a current gay soccer player in Europe, specifically telling The Guardian that he wanted to avoid “the circus”. He spoke about his fears regarding the effects that extra scrutiny from the fans, media, and other players would have on him. Rogers’s case is serves as evidence that the number one sport in Europe may not be as open as it claims.
The goal of universal acceptance of all LBGTIQA people in sports may be a distant one, and its current battle faces obstacles that it struggles to overcome. Currently, the faces of the movement are all either retired or journeyman athletes. While every person has their own story and has the right to come out when they please, their general irrelevance as actual players causes their message to center less on the acceptance they may have felt and more on the insecurities they may have felt coming out as an LBGTIQA athlete.
The LBGTIQA community needs a star athlete to boost acceptance, much in the way Jackie Robinson helped push forward integration in professional sports. Robinson may not have been the most talented black athlete of his time, but he was a trailblazer because he was able to last. He was able to gain acceptance, albeit grudgingly from some, in baseball for his play. That in turn, lessened people’s fear of blacks playing professional sports with whites. As a future Hall of Fame baseball player, Robinson proved that blacks were just as capable as whites. The same is needed for the LBGTIQA community. Michael Sam may become a beacon to light the path to that goal, but it is entirely possible that that person is years down the road. Either way, Sam’s promise and his courage will inspire others to do the same, and help him show that one’s sexuality does not define one’s ability to compete.