How Can Gay NFL Prospect Michael Sam Fit into Homophobic Locker-Room Culture?

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
How Can Gay NFL Prospect Michael Sam Fit into Homophobic Locker-Room Culture?
Tim Heitman/USA Today

On February 9, NFL draft prospect Michael Sam told Chris Connelly of ESPN.com "I am an openly, proud gay man." NFL teams, executives, players, fans and media proclaimed public support for Sam.

On February 14, the NFL released the findings of its commissioned independent investigation into the bullying and harassment claims of Miami Dolphins left tackle Jonathan Martin. According to the report from investigator Ted Wells, he and his staff found plenty of bullying and harassment, as well as rampant racism, sexism, misogyny and, yes—homophobia.

The duality of the NFL has never been more plain, and the tension between its past and future never been more painful. The NFL used to be an ugly, brutal spectacle akin to bare-knuckle boxing or the early days of MMA. Now it's a global enterprise raking in over $10 billion a year.

Commissioner Roger Goodell earned $44.2 million in compensation in 2012, per ESPN.com's Darren Rovell, because he's done a fantastic job of expanding the NFL's mindshare among non-traditional fans. Women, children, non-NFL cities and even other countries have been the target of extended marketing and branding campaigns.

How will all these newly minted fans react if Sam faces the same bullying, slurs and harassment Martin did?

 

The Sanctity of the Locker Room

There's something special, almost mystical, about a professional locker room. For fans, it's the inner sanctum, the most holy place. It's sacred ground upon which only players and coaches may tread. Members of the media are allowed to briefly visit, of course, bringing back tales of the glory they've beheld.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It's all part of the myth-making that surrounds pro athletes. These larger-than-life warrior-icons do legendary things on the field of battle, then disappear into their secret Hall of Brotherhood and do whatever they do in there that forges 53 men into an indivisible whole.

We hear about the sanctity of the locker room, the "locker room code," how what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room and players-only meetings. We also hear about "locker room culture": bounties, fines, rookie hazing and more.

Once every few years, we get a bizarre anecdote, like then-Boston Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon's 2004 ritual of naked pull-ups, and we can only wonder what crazy things go on that we never hear about.

Even more rarely, we hear of darker things—like infantile, sexually charged behavior directed toward TV Azteca's Ines Sainz by various New York Jets in 2010.

It's easy to imagine that when cameras and microphones aren't around, even worse stuff goes on.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

We recall the worst of our high school gym class locker rooms and multiply by 53, then mix in an adult, alpha-male, sales manager-ish "work hard, play hard" attitude toward life, love and money. Then we shudder, put it out of our minds and go on with our day.

That's the problem facing Sam: To be a professional football player, he has to walk into NFL facilities like the Miami Dolphins', do his job and be 1/53rd of that brotherhood—for days and weeks and months and (with luck) years on end.

 

The Reality of the Locker Room

Even if we intellectually understand that locker room banter might not be safe for kids, the scads of horrible things said to Martin about him and his family (NSFW Warning: extremely sexually explicit and offensive, derogatory language), as detailed in the Wells report, can't be repeated on the pages of Bleacher Report.

Is the locker room a safe space for racism, sexism, misogyny and homophobia?

"We accept that the communications of young, brash, highly competitive football players often are vulgar and aggressive," the report states, "and that these players never expected their private communications with each other to be made public."

Now, it seems, the curtain has been pulled back on locker room culture; what we see is much worse than we ever imagined.

Being confronted with the awful reality of rampant racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia of NFL players in the year 2014 is as shocking as it is sickening. We thought we knew, but we didn't really know.

When players regularly toss around slurs like "p---y" and "f----t" to demean, degrade and shame their teammates—in person and electronically, at all hours of the day and night—how can an openly gay player dream of coming into that situation and being accepted?

The reality is, he must be. If not because it's the right thing to do, then because the future of the NFL depends on it.

 

Changing the Culture

Goodell and the NFL have already taken on traditional football culture twice.

First, the NFL and NFL Players Association began to take concussion prevention, diagnosis and treatment seriously, complete with a #ChangetheCulture hashtag:

Then, Goodell levied massive sanctions against the New Orleans Saints defense for running an under-the-table "bounty system" for big (and injurious) hits.

Both of these things—the warrior mentality of playing through brain injury and the bounties—have been part of pro football for as long as any living player can recall. Yet in 2014, they have no place in the game.

Since the 1950s, the men on the field and the fans in the stands have changed dramatically; pro football is not played solely by and for men who love violent competition.

It was once played by grown-up college football stars who sold cars or insurance in the offseason to get by; now, even undrafted rookies will make nearly half-a-million dollars if they crack the active roster. Instead of stands half-filled with drunken louts on their day off, families are paying hundreds of dollars to secure a few hours' worth of kid-friendly entertainment.

With all that in mind, it's time for the NFL to again address football culture. Locker rooms aren't some sort of football Valhalla—they're places of work. They're the office spaces of billion-dollar organizations. Players are there to prepare to do their job, which just so happens to be professional football.

Money has changed the game in a lot of ways; now, it's finally forcing the NFL to pull itself away from the the last vestiges of its old Stone Age mentality.

As the Wells report said, "A young football player who has the skills to play at the highest level, and who also happens to be quiet and reserved, should have the opportunity to pursue a career in the NFL without being subjected to harassment from his teammates."

The same is true whether the player is quiet and reserved or loud and boisterous, funny or dour, likeable or standoffish, straight or gay.

 

The Real Reality of the Locker Room?

But is what happened in Miami really typical of locker rooms everywhere?

"We did not approach this assignment expecting to discover behavior that society might anticipate in, say, an accounting firm or a law office," the investigators explained. "For better or worse, profanity is an accepted fact of life in competitive sports, and professional athletes commonly indulge in conduct inappropriate in other social settings.

That said, Incognito and the other Dolphins linemen who harassed Martin (and an assistant trainer and another unnamed player) crossed every conceivable line, even by football standards.

"The treatment of Martin," the report concluded, "and others in the Miami Dolphins organization at times was offensive and unacceptable in any environment, including the world professional football players inhabit."

San Diego Chargers fullback Le'Ron McClain sure didn't think the conversations between Martin and his linemates were typical locker-room talk:

As John Branch of The New York Times reported, Sam's teammates at Missouri knew of his sexuality throughout his senior season, and they couldn't have been more supportive. Not only was it a non-issue when he was around, but they all allowed him to retain control over when and how he came out to the greater world.

Just as having a close friend or relative come out can cause a homophobic person to re-evaluate his or her thinking, having a gay teammate could cause a lot of NFL players to rethink their use of slurs as insults—in the locker room and in private.

 

The Reckoning

In a way, this report coming out on the heels of Sam's declaration helps him tremendously.

The NFL was already going to be working overtime to make Sam's transition as smooth as possible; there's simply too much at stake. If the NFL's first openly gay player washes out because he couldn't handle the constant abuse, that's going to be a bitter pill for a lot of the NFL's most treasured new fans to swallow.

There's an old saying: "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." That this wretched locker room talk came into the light just before Sam auditions for teams at the NFL Scouting Combine will force the league to come down hard and fast, making sure nothing like this ever happens again.

If its recent track record is any indication, the NFL is going to use this case to make an example out of the Dolphins for the benefit of the rest of the league—just as it did with the Saints and Bountygate.

For Sam, all he can do is prepare for the combine, do his best to impress, answer questions openly and honestly when asked and otherwise shut up and play football well.

More than anything he could say or not say, do or not do, Sam's on-field production could immediately earn the lasting respect of his teammates, his friends and his tormentors alike.

Load More Stories

Follow B/R on Facebook

Out of Bounds

NFL

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.