Homosexuality in American football is a highly contentious issue. This sample essay will explore how homophobia is alive and well, and the machoist culture of professional American football is often seen as detrimental to the acceptance of all sexualities in the sport.
Homosexuality in American Football
Homosexuality in American sports is an issue that goes back decades, though a recent string of comments from the San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver ignited a firestorm of controversy regarding the status and acceptance of gay athletes in professional American sports. By expressing strong homophobic viewpoints, Culliver gave a public voice to the opinion that many people hold, especially in the hyper-masculine world of professional sports, especially the NFL. Though his comments were rejected by his team’s management and he received strong criticism from many individuals in the media and the sports community at large, Culliver’s story is nonetheless a fascinating and potent lesson for the issue of gay athletes in the United States.
The comments themselves originated late January in the Media Day prelude to Super Bowl XLVII and aired on a radio station sports interview program hosted by Artie Lange. Telling Lange, when asked if there were any gay players on the team, that
“Nah […] we ain’t got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Nah, can’t be in the locker room” (Peralta).
These comments, while said in an offhand manner by Culliver, immediately necessitated a shutdown of the interview occuring at the time and the statements quickly gained traction in public media. By the time the controversy died down in the post-Superbowl euphoria, Culliver avoided any repercussions for his statements besides a minor admonishment for homophobia on behalf of his managers, and complete disregard by his teammates, who attributed the comments to his young age and the carefree atmosphere leading up to the Superbowl.
The story of Chris Culliver
In the aftermath of the disastrous interview, Culliver and his managers immediately went on damage control, albeit a weak approach that left many onlookers scratching their heads. In an apology issued by the 49ers, Culliver stated that
“The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel. It has taken me seeing them in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart. Further, I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and and grow from this experience” (Daily News).
This statement, issued two days after the media blunder during Artie Lange’s radio show, was questioned in both its honesty and efficacy, begging the question of whether Culliver or the 49ers themselves had any particular concerns about the homophobia expressed by their teammate. Jerome Bettis, when asked about homosexuality in American football in an interview with the Huffiington Post, said that
“because [the sport] is so testosterone driven, it’d be really, really difficult for a gay player to really stand up and say, ‘Hey, I’m gay and an NFL football player” (Bennet-Smith).
This acknowledgment that homosexuality is still considered a shameful act and a personal quality that must be hidden to gain acceptance from one’s teammates and supporters is central to the debate about the value system American football has, and whether the sports community was taking the proper approach to discrimination in the professional realm.
Until April of 2013, no gay athlete had ever come out and announced his orientation while still playing as an active member of the team. This unfortunate statistic was finally broken when Jason Collins, a professional NBA player for the Washington Wizards, finally became the first gay man to openly out himself while still remaining on his team. The sports community, sadly, is is one of the last hamlets of homophobia in our society […] no active male jock in football, basketball, or baseball” had ever come out this year (Zirin). When Culliver’s comments first broke national news, it immediately sparked a storm of controversy about the level of acceptance of open gay athletes in professional settings. Proponents of equal rights and gay activists were quick to point out that
“the prohibitively traditional culture of football is popularly regarded as being responsible for this [homophobia]. Fans habitually use homophobic epithets to abuse players” (Cashmore, Ellis, Cleland).
American football remains a difficult place to find acceptance as an openly gay athlete; yet when questioned about whether they would accept gay teammates, one NFL player was quoted as having said
“I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play” (Zirin).
Despite some promise about open acceptance of gay athletes by their teammates, who more often than not are only really concerned with the professional performance of an individual, the sports establishment itself remains a difficult place to find opening itself to the gay community. Moreover, as Culliver’s narrative shows, the casual nature by which homophobic remarks can be made and then dismissed as the eager ramblings of a young player on the way to his first Superbowl is both troubling and at the same time hopeful, as the 2011 study by Cashmore, Ellis, and Cleland shows that
“The overwhelming majority (93%) of participants in the study oppose homophobia and explained the homophobic abuse as good-humored banter” (425).
Despite this, it remains clear that Culliver’s statements were not merely light-hearted joking and that homophobia is alive and well in the community. The social effect one learns from team sports, both positive and negative can last a lifetime.
Regret and remorse over homophobic comments
Tracing Culliver’s narrative past the night of the initial remarks and into the following days, we see that the man himself showed a fair amount of remorse for his actions, and NFL press writer and observer Gregg Rosenthal seemed to feel that
“Culliver paid a price for his remarks. It’s something he should learn from”. At the same time, however, the 49ers cornerback “seemed to be in a daze […] wondering what the hell just happened” (Rosenthal).
The media event aimed at salvaging Culliver from the crucifixation of gay rights activists, yet contradictions exist between what observers such as Rosenthal believe the young football player felt in terms of a “public shaming” as the NFL press put it, compared to the seemingly empty apology and lack of any real concern on behalf of professional sports organizations or commentators. Indeed, it seems that the incident itself tended to reinforce
“narratives that gay males remain unwelcome in men’s team sports”, although these were “all were challenged consistently, showing the fluidity of hegemonic masculinity and the increasing societal acceptance of gays and gay lifestyles” (Kian).
Culliver’s story then moves on to a broader discussion of gay rights in professional American sports, with this particular incident referenced with frightening regularity in later controversies regarding the NFL.
Motives behind comments on homosexuality
Though Culliver’s motives behind his apology seemed more in line with standard press damage control tactics than any real feelings of remorse, the narrative of the story continues. Sports writer Chris Wesseling reports that Culliver, having promised to both learn more about the LGBT community and support it as best he can,
“will undergo sensitivity training and then work with The Trevor Project, an effort aimed at reducing suicide rates among homosexual and transgender youths” (NFL).
According to Culliver’s public relations spokesperson, the young star acknowledges his place as a community leader and role model, and wishes to act more in line with the values and character traits of which people can be proud. Nonetheless, sports commentator and writer Dan Hanzus of the NFL media department laments that
“It would be nice if Culliver, rather than his PR flak, spoke about the experience on Monday. Still, he should be commended for backing up his word to become more educated on the issues of the gay and lesbian community”.
In the following weeks following the controversy, Culliver made good on his promises to attend sensitivity training, work with at-risk youths, and take steps to improve himself as a individual, although the dearth of comments coming from him seems to indicate, as Hanzus believes, a still-scared mentality of large media blunders and, arguably, a lack of actual remorse regarding his actions.
The initial outbreak of commentary regarding Culliver’s statements reflect a broad disjunction between societal norms of acceptable behavior regarding sexual orientation and the comparative attitude in professional American sports. Edward Kian argues that
“print media writers exhibited little homophobia and frequently call for more acceptance of gays, particularly within sports”
whereas the sporting community itself is torn between open acceptance or rejection. This tension between the relatively more accepted status of homosexuality in the public realm and in agreed-upon societal norms indicates that, even with print media taking a strong stance against homophobia in its publications, it nonetheless reflects a broad underlying inconsistency when comparing two distinct value systems. In the case of sexual orientation, the sports community acts as an entity that bars and refuses to embrace the change in values seen in the public.
Gay rights in American professional football
Though gay rights are not a settled issue in the public realm by any means, there has been a marked improvement and a sense that
“gay rights have made such rapid progress that there is an urge to look back and asses what has happened” (Ross 47).
Instead of embracing and taking a proactive stance on the matter of gay rights, the NFL in particular has lagged drastically in ensuring openly gay athletes can find a welcoming environment to practice their sport, and should expect playful hazing. Ex-Ravens linebacker Brandon Ayanbadejo, one of the strongest proponents of gay rights within the NFL, and NFL Players Association president Domonique Foxworth were quoted in an article from March of 2013, nearly two months after the Culliver controversy, stating that
“When the public finds out about it [gay NFL players], it’s going to be a media storm and it’s gonna be a lot of press and a lot of attention. And probably not all of it’s gonna be positive” (Legan).
Culliver’s statements, when viewed in light of the actions of the NFL and professional sports organizations, seem to indicate an institutional bias against opening itself to acceptance of varying sexual orientation. When Josh Collins of the Washington Wizards broke the news that he was gay, the community was largely supportive, as
“Collins’s announcement was greeted with an outpouring of support from teammates, league executives and major National Basketball Association stars, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade among them” (Beck, Branch).
Despite the positive reaction, sports analyst Chris Broussard of the National Basketball Association argued that Collins is openly sinning, and a handful of other notable figures and players expressed less than enthusiastic responses to the successful outing of professional basketball player.
The strong support for Collins in the NBA stands in contrast to the fact that no NFL player has yet made the decision to out themselves openly, and that such a decision would possibly be met with much stronger resistance in football than other sports. Writing for the NFL website, Gregg Rosenthal argues that many players and coaches are
“uncertain whether the scene is set for the NFL’s first openly gay player”
and that, even considering Collins’ strong positive reaction in his community, the question remains whether American football is fully prepared to take the leap and embrace openly gay players without suffering substantial criticism and flak from not only its fan base, but also those individuals that participate in the running of the organization. However, despite Culliver’s relative infamy with regards to homosexuality in the NFL, almost all sources discussing the matter of Collin’s coming out lacked any reference to Culliver’s statements; instead, an even newer scandal involving homophobic comments by the Miama Dolphins Mike Wallace caught most of the flak when he questioned why a man would want to be with another man with “all these beautiful women about” (Legan). Thus, Chris Culliver seems to have faded from the public limelight with regards to his comments regarding sexual orientation.
Homophobia in sports media
The story of Chris Culliver and his homophobic comments is not one that will reverberate particularly loudly in the media beyond a few weeks of commentary about bigoted NFL players, but it nonetheless holds important lessons when comparing the competing value systems held in professional sports organizations and in the public. Societal norms would not tolerate questioning whether lawyers or doctors or numerous other professions should be allowed to practice as openly gay, yet it seems that professional sports are exception to this rule.
The team atmosphere mixed with the hyper-masculinity of the sport and those who compete in it renders American football somewhat more vulnerable to homophobic tendencies. Instead of allowing gay athletes to play openly, the NFL has an insitutional resistance to such a monumental change, with some calling it a “seminal moment” in history when the inevitable occurs and actively playing NFL players come out (Ross 49). Moreover, as the lack of openly gay athletes continues to plague the NFL, it is more likely that the gay athletes currently competing will be forced to conform to the societal norms that govern the NFL and not the broader culture. But without doubt, there is a lack of communication between what is socially acceptable, and what is acceptable in the NFL.
Stigma of homosexuality
Indeed, though the arrival of openly gay athletes in the NFL is inevitable, the story of Culliver offers an insight into how appropriate levels of behavior can be achieved and, in addition, the reasons behind why gay athletes remain heavily stigmatized in the organization. Culliver’s narrative is useful in the reaction that it garnered from the surrounding community—if the issue of gay rights in the NFL mattered little to the media and players, there would hardly been such an outcry over blatant homophobia.
When he made those remarks, Culliver brought the silent issue of homophobia back to forefront of the moral debate about values that only a few other individuals, such as Brandon Ayanbadejo, had been constantly fighting for. Without Culliver’s story, the reaction to homophobic comments would have been nonexistent without cause. Thus, Culliver helped to provide a case study for a simple expression of homophobia—it was the reaction to his comments by the NFL and the sports community that helped to gain insight into how well received openly gay athletes would be in their chosen profession.
Homosexuality in American football is a substantive issue that, aside from a handful of media blunders by Chris Culliver and Mike Wallace, and the strong efforts of Brandon Ayanbadejo, is largely ignored or simply not discussed. On the rare occasions when homosexuality arises in the public eye, it is received with a mixture of positive support by gay rights activists and a handful of offensive or crude remarks by others that receive a substantial level of objection. Despite this, it seems that the value of Culliver’s narrative is that he allowed gay rights activists to test the waters as to how well openly gay athletes would be accepted.
The coming out of NBA player Josh Collins bodes well for the gay community, as his strong level of support from many professional sports organizations was a welcome boon towards moving to a better environment for America’s gay athletes. Though Culliver’s comments will likely not stand the test of time and be substantial enough to remember in years to come, the effect they had and the insight they allowed into the status of gay athletes in the NFL is invaluable. Given that media attention towards the Culliver story has long since halted and that new controversies regarding comments made by other players regarding Collins, it can be said that the story has reached a definitive end. Thus, Chris Culliver’s brief stint with homophobia provides the capacity to establish the levels upon which affirmaton of gay athletes can be determined, and exemplifies the competing value systems and tension between accepted societal norms and those found in professional American sports organizations like the National Football League.
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