Football, along with other professional contact sports, has long been characterized as a ‘man’s world’; a ‘man’s game’. The game resides in an arena whereby physicality, skill, and toughness define who you are, both on the field and off the field. Couldn’t make that crucial tackle? Weak. Dropped the potential game-winning catch? Soft. Misfired on a critical throw late in the fourth quarter? Choker.
You see, professional athletes are commonly defined by what they are not, rather than what they are. Nitpicking and pointing out tiny flaws and mistakes, rather than celebrating the triumph and glory of raw talent and athleticism.
We take many of their skills for granted; stamina, muscularity, energy, physical and mental strength, agility, the list goes on and on. They’re athletes, they’re supposed to have all those things, obviously. We sometimes forget there are indeed human beings inside those bodies, underneath the sweat-laden jerseys, the layers of thick padding. As perhaps the most polarized figures in the public sphere, we sometimes forget that athletes are just like us on the inside; they have feelings, emotions, thoughts, worries, concerns, and above all, a heart.
But see, the problem we have as sports fans, or even regular citizens, is that we have predefined and preconceived notions of what we believe an athlete is. Like a cookie-cutter, we presume athletes will fit into these notions that are already in our heads. Brawny, hard-nosed, tough, competitive. Oh, and they’re obviously straight. Right?
Michael Sam was a standout college football player at Missouri. Named the SCC’s defensive player of the year. Prior to the NFL Draft, he publicly announced his homosexuality, sending shockwaves throughout the sporting world. Sam became the first active athlete to proclaim he was homosexual; the handful who had done so only revealed this upon retiring, opting to hide their homosexuality throughout their playing careers, in fears of creating a stir.
The sports world could not wrap its head around it; the best defensive player in college football is gay? Really?
The fact he was only projected to be a third to fifth-round pick as the best defensive player in the nation is what was undoubtedly more surprising here. NFL officials scrambled to rapidly leak to various media outlets word that Sam would plummet in the draft, with teams supposedly being extremely opposed to taking on a gay player because ‘he wouldn’t fit in.’
Heck, Sam did slip alright; he was drafted in the seventh and final round by the St. Louis Rams, 249th overall. But that didn’t matter. What Michael Sam did, by announcing he was gay before he was even officially taken on by an NFL team, was his own permanent legacy.
It opened the doors for other athletes to come out, feeling a sense of solidarity in light of Sam’s revelation. Just over a week later, NBA player Jason Collins announced he, too, was homosexual. And in fact, that same day, the Brooklyn Nets signed him to a contract. It increased the comfort level for all non-heterosexual athletes in all professional sports, with an enhanced sense of acceptance and tolerance finally making its way through the confines of the locker room. But most of all, it showed that we, as a society, need to change the way we regard athletes. Not by what “gaps” and “deficiencies” they may have, but rather what makes them unique and beautiful.
Finally, after centuries of regarding sport as an avenue solely for hegemonic masculinity, we have knocked over the barrier between sexuality and sport, welcoming those with all different sexual preferences with open arms. Rather than looking at non-heterosexuality as a deviance away from our preconceived norms of sport, we have now learned to appreciate it as an additive, summative, aggregate mosaic of human nature.