As buzz builds about 4 NFL players coming out, Robert Reece speculates on what it will mean for them personally and for the hyper-masculine league they play in.
Friday, the National Football League’s resident gay rights advocate, Brendon Ayanbadejo, revealed that a few current NFL players are considering coming out as gay. According to Ayanbadejo, four players are trying to organize an event whereby they come out together on the same day. He says that “it will happen sooner than [we] think.” As a former athlete and NFL junkie, I don’t think it can happen soon enough. Though a few NFL players coming out will not spell the end of anti-LGBTQ sentiments in the country and I, just like anyone else, can only speculate about its impact, it will certainly be a momentous occasion.
In a gladiator sport that stands at the forefront of American masculinity and popular culture, a few players presenting a side of themselves that much of the country still views as intrinsically feminine can add much needed nuance to our image of masculinity. Merging these two seemingly conflicting versions of masculinity stands to open inroads to more complex types of masculine expression, especially if one or more of the players is black. The juxtaposition of black hyper-masculinity (which in this case is compounded by status as a professional athlete) and the supposed femininity of being gay may not shatter existing paradigms that pigeonhole masculinity and stereotype gayness, but it would certainly provide a productive challenge, especially if this proves to be only the start of a much larger phenomenon.
Though these four men, regardless of race, are privileged in relation to the majority of other gay men, they will almost certainly face an unpredictable amount of backlash from both the fans and their fellow players. If they can unapologetically withstand the inevitable verbal abuse and possible locker room ostracization, their bravery may serve as a catalyst for other gay professional athletes to come out, thus eliminating one of the remaining bastions of heterosexual masculinity, where “men are ‘men:’” professional athletics. The idea that locker rooms lack gay men is largely active denial on the part of professional athletes seeking comfort in a homophobic space that essentially excludes alternate masculinities.
NFL General Managers must already be sitting uncomfortably behind their very expensive desks as they ponder the possibility of openly gay players in their league. Let us not forget that this is the same league that came under fire during the NFL Combine, its flagship event for the evaluation of collegiate athletes, when some aspiring players accused general managers of going on homophobic witch hunts by inquiring about their sexuality during the private interview sessions. Though the league claimed it would “investigate” the events nothing has come of it, but given these new developments, it is almost certainly concerned about ruining the “All-American” image of the organization.
But if any organization can withstand a potential backlash, it’s the NFL, by far the most popular professional sports league in the country, but only if it chooses to embrace these players and drop the hammer on anyone—players, fans, coaches, administrators—who seek to abuse them because of their sexuality. Any casual NFL fan knows that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has no problem harshly disciplining players for both on-field and off-field indiscretions, and if the league is to maintain any integrity as the landscape changes, he must be willing to be as stern when it comes to issues involving anti-gay bigotry as well.
Whether their eventual coming out transforms professional sports and American society or just ends up being a small blip on the radar of this year’s events, these men will still be able to collectively exhale as they will no longer be forced to hide such a major part of their lives, to sit in silence while their teammates openly flaunt their wives and girlfriends. In that way, regardless of the social outcomes, they will be able to claim a major personal victory, one in which they should take great pride.