On Sunday, February 9, 2014 Michael Sam, a defensive end for the Missouri Tigers announced that he is gay. It has met with a variety of responses around the web. Overall media has been portraying a largely supportive message, commending Sam on his bravery and extolling his abilities. Michael Sam is also the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year and predicted to be a 3rd to 5th round draft pick this year. Whether or not his newfound political side will affect his draft pick is a hot topic. Just last year Jason Collins came out in the NBA and has yet to be picked up by a team. Now, Collins was entering his free agent status and picking up a player who invites so much attention is a tricky decision for any team in any sport. Did his being gay have something to do with him not getting signed? Probably, but maybe not. With Sam, however, if something like that were to happen we could be looking at a huge catastrophe for the NFL. The NFL has declared somewhat mixed messages about the defensive end, making public statements welcoming him into the NFL while certain officials comment that his sexual orientation is sure to cause issues in the locker room and may be legitimate reason for teams to pass him over. Michael Sam has demonstrated that he is a player worth having on your team; Defensive Player of the Year in arguably the toughest NCAA division is no laughing matter. Many are interested in what will happen, but due to the recent rise in players and celebrities revealing their sexual orientation, some are already jaded on the issue.
When I went on to check my various social media profiles I found a number of statuses that paraphrased were “Why is this a big deal?” “Why should I care that some college football player is gay?” Granted most of these statuses came from my non-athletically oriented friends, but that makes this all the more frustrating. It seems that the homophobia built into hyper-masculine, contact sports has become so ingrained in the culture that it isn’t recognized as homophobia anymore.
Speaking as a former football player I can attest to the homophobia innate in any locker room. Guys are taught that we cannot appreciate the beauty of another man’s body without it being gay. I cannot expound upon the beauty of Cristiano Ronaldo’s majestic gallop in the locker room without homosexual thoughts being projected onto the words I am saying. It doesn’t even need to be something that could be sexual: I remember being called gay multiple times in my locker room for showing up wearing Crocs on a hot summer day. Imagine how hard it would be to survive the locker room when everybody genuinely thinks you’re eyeing them up. I would hope that a professional locker room would be above these childish thoughts but after the recent debacle with Martin and Incognito my faith in the maturity of the NFL players has waned. Sam could indeed face steep odds when he gets drafted. Hopefully he’ll wind up in a place like New England where the value of the team overrides any petty issues like sexual preference, but who knows what the teams are going to do. I wish Michael Sam the best of luck in his professional career and hope he proves to the world that there is more than one way to be a great football player.
After completing the MVP Institute in October, I was quite confident about moderating conversations on racial and sexual discrimination. Shortly after, Brian and I were assigned to one of Sport in Society’s many Project Teamwork facilitations at the Point Webster School in Quincy, MA. Project Teamwork centers more around bullying than racial or sexual prejudice. The kids are in middle school and boy is it a different experience than talking to a room full of concerned adults. Many of them clearly know the “correct” answers and spit them out in the shortest possible form to avoid explicit genuine involvement. It’s nostalgic in a bizarre way. Connecting to the students on a basic level is easy. We ask them questions: they give us responses. The hard part is engaging them on a conversational level.
There are twenty-five students and I have yet to hear a disagreement between them. The MVP Institute spoiled me with heartfelt conversation stemming from a number of rational, emotional and personal perspectives on an issue that affects us all deeply. In the case of bullying, the kids seem almost desensitized to the topic. Thankfully there are a few who genuinely seem to care. One girl in particular has raised the issue of cyber bullying numerous times so it is clear that though we may not be getting through to a number of the kids, there are a few who certainly value the trainings. It has been an eye opening experience. I remember these sorts of classes when I was in school and how little I paid attention then. Now I understand the value of these conversations and wish I had heard more at that age. The raging chaos of hormones and developing social consciousness make it incredibly hard to know what values one stands for and how to actualize them, but with these conversations the seed of conscious thought is planted and slowly they will begin to choose for themselves what is and is not worth fighting for.
Usually when I hear the term “Applied Ethics” I think of a textbook sitting at the bottom of my shelf at home. Now, after working at Sport in Society a little over a month, I think of organizations like ours, Playworks, Squashbusters, AmericaSCORES and the myriad of other Sports Based Youth Development programs that we read and speak about here on a daily basis.
My first project was to research articles for a new section of our website that holds literature related to social justice and sport. Thanks to the comprehensive resources of Northeastern University, I’ve read a fair number of psychology, sociology and philosophy of sport articles that give a diverse view of attitudes towards the modern world of sport.
After a few negotiations with the publishing companies, Human Kinetics allowed us to post two articles from their Sociology of Sport Journal. Though both are interesting, Michael Messner’s Gender Ideologies, Youth Sports and the Production of Soft Essentialism struck a particular chord. I’ve worked at a boys camp in central Vermont for the last eight years and one thing we work very hard to do there is provide a safe environment where the boys can learn about who they are, what they want and how to be the best versions of themselves. You don’t have to be an athlete to be considered a real man and you don’t have to always keep a stiff upper lip when the going gets tough. Kids are encouraged to talk to each other and to counselors about any issue that’s bothering them. It’s a great place, and I value it all the more from what Messner diagnoses as a common problem in youth sports.
Thanks to the feminist movement and a growing progressive trend worldwide, girls are given many opportunities to play sports. Often the field is still a segregated place to play, but it wasn’t long ago that girls weren’t even allowed on to the field what with rigid ideas of womanhood prevalent in the early twentieth century. Now girls are seen as, “flexible choosers in the world.” Things have come a long way for girls and the progress has created an odd side effect. Boys are now realizing a similar sort of prejudice that girls and women have been fighting against; they’re getting profiled with their gender. Boys are: rowdy, aggressive, simple, stoic, sports-loving animals destined for careers that make them money in order to fulfill the other half of the outdated dream of the 1950s. Boys on youth sports teams are more regularly scolded and yelled at than girls, with the justification, “they’re boys, they can take it.” They’re still being taught to be traditional ,“Manly Men.” All children have complex inner lives that respond to the harshness of the outside world. If we keep pigeon holing boys then we will deny many of them the happiness of being comfortable in their own skin.
This is important for us to consider in this changing world. A few of us here are beginning a project analyzing various SBYD initiatives and developing a curriculum to help programs become more intentional and age appropriate. It’s a huge undertaking but it has the potential to be very helpful. With this information in hand I look forward to working on creating a more aware sports world here with this great community.