By: Kim Wentworth
In America, sports are part of our daily lives. Player stats and game scores are splashed across the news at most points in the day. There are hundreds of television channels dedicated to sports—some are even as specific as to air only one sport.
“I love sports because it teaches values like self-respect, self-discipline, teamwork and resilience; adding tolerance to that list only enhances the character building opportunities for athletes.”
Leigh Steinberg, famous sports agent, recently stated this when he addressed the issue of homosexuality in sports. He of all people would understand the consequences of “coming out” as an athlete – he was one of the most successful representatives for professional athletes during his 41-year career. So, if Steinberg supports the decision for his clients to be open about their sexuality, why is it so rare that professional athletes admit it? I blame the overarching issue of hegemonic masculinity in sports for this. There is a set, unspoken rule across America that athletes—especially male athletes—have to be masculine. The problem with this is, what exactly is masculine?
Hegemonic masculinity is a culture’s ideal form of masculine character. Masculinity is defined the way it is because of the patriarchal society that created it. In a society where men hold more power than women, it seems logical that being “manly” and masculine would be associated with being powerful, dominant and strong. Nick Trujillo, mass communication scholar, claimed that, “no single institution in American culture has influenced our sense of masculinity more than sports.” The impact that sports have on America is extremely important and also concerning when it relates to issues such as masculinity and sexuality. Hegemonic masculinity also includes the marginalization and exclusion of gay men due to our society’s heteronormative expectations. We think that straight is right and gay is wrong. Communication scholar Luke Winslow claimed that masculinity is usually seen as strength, aggressiveness, and assertiveness. He also states that being masculine is really just being not feminine. Feminine characteristics typically are categorized by being weak and emotional. These character traits are not wanted in any major league dugout or locker room. Trujillo addressed hegemonic masculinity in sports and found that there were five distinguished features of hegemonic masculinity: physical force and control, occupational achievement, familial patriarchy, frontiermanship, and heterosexuality. The point I will focus on is heterosexuality. This feature of hegemonic masculinity emphasizes the “sex hierarchy.” This just simply means that our society has deemed what type of sex and sexual orientation is good, normal, and natural. People assume that if a person is homosexual, they will possess feminine character traits because heterosexuality is associated with masculine traits. The dominant standards of hegemonic masculinity within sports needs to change. More professional athletes need to stop worrying about what people will think and come out as being homosexual.
Professional athletes all around the world are extremely important public figures. They have the power to address social issues such as gender, politics, rape, etc. at mass. Their opinions are regarded as significant because of their credibility as a professional athlete. Also, they are vital to the way young adults and children grow up; they are the role models that kids look up to and aspire to be. If professional athletes were to tackle such an issue as homosexuality, it would be a social game-changer. Throughout the years, homosexuality has been an incredibly taboo topic because of the way our country viewed it—it was seen as wrong and disgusting due to our heteronormative expectations. However, with the recent change in our country’s gay marriage policies, homosexuality is becoming more and more accepted by the public. Just a few years ago, former NFL player Wade Davis came out publicly about being gay. When he came out, he stated that the reason he waited until after his football career was over was because he wanted to be known as a football player, not as a gay person. He then went on to explain how it would have been difficult to come out during his career because he feared that his teammates would not accept him and that he would lose credibility as a player. This is an extremely common fear among homosexual athletes, both professional and not. Across the board, more professional athletes come out after their careers instead of during. This fear is tattooed into the minds of children across America at a very young age. From the moment they hit the locker rooms in middle school, kids are criticized by their peers if they are anything but heterosexual. Many professional athletes and even coaches have explained that having a homosexual person in the locker room would bother them. One NFL player personnel assistant once commented, “it would chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room” to have a gay man on the team. This mindset is troubling. If athletes could be more accepting of homosexual teammates, it would start an entire movement that would trickle down the line to those young pre-teens who want to play the sport that they love.
In America, sports are one of the greatest influences on our society. As a nation, we focus a huge chunk of our lives around sports. From being a star college athlete, to being a parent/fan of that star, most households can gather around sports in order to bond and communicate. Just a few weeks ago, over 111 million people convened around their televisions to watch Super Bowl 50. Since people love sports so much and it’s one of the main topics of conversation at the dinner table, it would be beyond beneficial to the public if more professional athletes came out. This could help break down the barriers of hegemonic masculinity within sports and even our society. As previously stated, these pros are role models to a majority of Americans. Kids want to be them, and parents want their kids to turn into them. So when professional athletes can gain the courage to admit to such an important part of their lives, it gives younger kids the courage to do the same. Professional athletes can be a beacon of hope for some twelve-year-old who is finally realizing who they are. This hope can have a lasting impact on our society in more ways than just giving younger generations confidence in themselves. If more professional athletes were open about their sexualities, it would aid in creating a tolerance among heterosexual teammates. There would be more exposure for heterosexual players to realize that just because one of their teammates is homosexual does not mean that they will play any differently. Just as Steinberg said, tolerance to homosexuality only enhances the character of the athletes.
The way I see it, the world needs more gay athletes. Homosexuality shouldn’t have to be a forbidden concept. Being homosexual does not make a man any less masculine than a straight man. If more players can come out to the public like Wade Davis and Michael Sam did, we might actually see a change in our society. Since professional athletes are such large public icons, they could be the ones that break down the issue of hegemonic masculinity. They could be the spark to ignite the change that the world needs.