By Alex Hunter.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Canvass or The Seven Hills School.
On Sunday, February 16, 2014, former NBA player Jason Collins signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets. As a result, Collins became the first openly gay male athlete to play a game in any of North America’s four major professional sports. Furthermore, senior Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, SEC co-defensive player of the year, came out to The New York Times and ESPN earlier in February. As the highest profile athlete to be openly gay, Sam is preparing to revolutionize American sports. In a recent Sports Illustrated issue, Sam was featured on the cover and the text read “America Is Ready For Michael Sam.” I disagree. America is not ready for gay athletes in professional or collegiate sports.
Collins and Sam are amongst several athletes to address their homosexuality. Recently, other athletes such as WNBA star Brittney Griner and current MLS soccer player Robbie Rogers have publicly spoken about their homosexuality. In each of these cases, there has been a significant amount of media attention directed towards each athlete’s sexuality. The coverage itself is where the issue lies.
A person’s sexuality should not be a topic of national media debate. Frankly, the fact that Sam or Collins is gay is none of my concern nor should it be anyone’s. The fact that there is this much media attention directed at gay athletes contradicts the purpose of these athletes’ decision. Instead of passively acknowledging homosexual athletes, American news outlets continue to single them out.
Sexuality is one of the most prevalent taboos in professional sports. Racial diversity is widespread within every sport and racism is on the decline. The NFL is expected to institute a rule that states players would be penalized 15 yards for using the n-word on the field in the upcoming season. Other issues such as steroids in baseball and fan violence are arguably on the decline, although homophobia in sports still remains a pressing issue.
In the NFL last year, of the 1,696 players, not a single one of those players defined themselves as gay. Sam is projected to become the first openly gay football player to ever get drafted. While this is a major milestone, not only in the NFL but also in the entirety of professional sports, it is distressing that Sam’s announcement is coming in 2014, a year that has seen significant advances in national acceptance of homosexuality.
According to a study carried out by Gary J. Gates at the Williams Institute, adults that identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual comprise of 3.5% of the population. This would translate into about 59 NFL players who are gay, and even though this data is just an estimate, it does suggest an alarming question: are athletes not coming out because the NFL promotes a homophobic culture?
An even more damning testimony to homophobia in male professional sports is the periodic female athletes that come out. It is much more prevalent for women in professional sports to come out. While this might be because of the hypermasculine nature associated with male sports or because female sports are more accepting, I’m unsure and greatly perplexed. Billie Jean King, an openly gay woman and one of the most prolific female players, once said, “sports are a microcosm of society.” If athletes, male or female, are shying away from coming out then there is an appalling issue throughout America with homophobia.
While athletes such as Collins and Sam are paving the way for future progress, there is still an enormous amount of work that needs to occur in American sports and American media to be ready for homosexual athletes.