American football and homosexuality haven't historically gone hand in hand. In my grade school, a football-based game called "Smear the Queer" was popular among boys on the playground. As a former player who lived in a conservative religious town, my ignorance back during my playing days was an accurate reflection of the overall perception of gay males athletes.
I was consumed by the hyper-masculinity that still pervades football, as were other young male athletes. "American football is a metaphor for war and American world dominance," Sara Crawley, associate professor of sociology, said in her exploration of masculinity in football. She asserted that the heteronormative sport is deeply intertwined with sexuality, and the iconic status of male athlete "heroes" implies that they take whatever they want—which, Crawley specified, are "beautiful female bodies." So what happens when a football player doesn't fit this caveman image?
In my mind then (ten years ago), gay men didn't make sense in my favorite sport because of what Crawley observed: They didn't fit into what I perceived as the culture of being a tough-minded competitor. At that point, not one professional football player had ever come out. There were no conversations being had about homosexuality in sports.
In the last few years, thankfully, things have changed—but not by much. Former defensive lineman Michael Sam became the first openly gay college football player when he came out to his teammates at the University of Missouri in August 2013. Nine months later, he became the first openly gay player to be drafted into the National Football League, and then played in the CFL before retiring due to mental health concerns in 2015. Since then, a few other players have put their sexual identity into the spotlight.
For Sam and those who followed, their actions shifted the conversation, but how much have we progressed? Just this past week, the media have been speculating that New England Patriots' Aaron Hernandez's sexuality could have been a motive in his decision to murder his friend, Odin Lloyd. Hernandez, who killed himself in jail on April 19th, was at the center of what the New Yorker is calling "worrisome reporting" that included jokes about him possibly having relationships with men.
Darrion McAlister is an offensive lineman on the Marian University football team who came out in February after battling depression and anxiety for years. "Before I came out, I was in really bad depressive stages a few times a month," McAlister says. "I would constantly think about how my family, teammates and coaches would react. I would sleep for days at a time. I would be at work, crying for thirty minutes straight. It definitely affected how guarded I was when I played and it still affects me now. Some guys will question my toughness and sometimes I have to be more masculine just so they don't see me differently."
Imagine coming out to 80 young men and/or coaches whose stance on homosexuality you're unsure of. The United States already has a reputation for having the worst sports-related homophobia. "Young athletes tend to use sports to understand themselves better," says Carlton Green, a staff psychologist at University of Maryland, where he's counseled many athletes. "So when we teach these young boys that being a man is about being aggressive, violent and dominating other people, we are denying them certain aspects of their own humanity. Sometimes when you don't get to experience all of who you really are, that can lead to this level of social incompleteness and even depression. Whether it's their coaches, teammates, the institution or their own families, if these gay athletes don't feel these relationships will survive this disclosure of their identity, then they likely will not come out and will possibly have a mental health crisis."
A huge responsibility falls on teammates and coaches especially, it seems, and whether they channel their energy in a way that creates a comfortable enough environment for a man to come out. Why would you want to lose out on a great player and teammate just because of their sexual preference? Michael Sam was a unanimous college All-American, conference player of the year and was known to be a great teammate on and off the field, but he left the sport. I can't help but wonder how his teammates did or didn't support him.
"These gay athletes tend to struggle with being able to relate with their heterosexual teammates on various levels," Green says. "When you aren't able to relate to your teammates, especially when you are trying to come out, that stress immediately can turn into anxiety or depression. As that stress manifests itself, it stops these young gay men from being who they are and that anxiety and depression will continue to build."
"Before I came out, I felt like I had society coming down on me and I had to conform to being a heterosexual male, but the hyper-masculinity of the sport never really affected me, honestly," says Kyle Kurdziolek, a starting linebacker at the University of St. Francis football team in Illinois. "I don't expect a bunch of men to watch what they say just because of one guy. I understand the demographics of the room, I have a great sense of humor and I know I can rely on them."
He has a point. Changing the entire psychosocial aspect of the sport is not exactly the easiest option. Asking a bunch of college football players to suddenly be LGBTQ-friendly—refraining from using the word "fag" for one—on and off the field is an uphill battle. But it's a battle that both McAlister and Kurdziolek at least seems to be winning.
"I don't go through those depressive stages anymore, since coming out," McAlister says. "I definitely see myself more of an advocate for gay rights then I was before....I am definitely more vocal and confident about calling out teammates on their insensitivity to certain things."
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