By Scott Williams and Imani Henry
“I’m a college graduate, African-American, and I’m gay.” With these words spoken on Feb. 9, Michael Sam, an All-American college defensive back with the highly ranked Missouri Tigers in 2013, could potentially make history as the first openly gay male recruited to a National Football League football team.
Historically in the U. S., there have always been lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer professional athletes. Whether or not they could be publicly open about their sexuality and/or gender identity — given the hetero-normativity and rigid gender roles within society — still remains an ongoing battle.
How LGBTQ oppression plays out within professional sports ranges from the hetrosexist “fear” of sharing locker rooms and sleep quarters with LGBTQ people to gendered stereotypes that sports is for “masculine” men. And then there is the assumption that gay men are not athletic and that women should not play or understand sports and if they do they “must be” lesbians.
For trans and gender nonconforming players, it is the reliance by organized sports on the binary segregation based on birth sex assignment that keeps many TGNC people out of teams and leagues in the first place.
LGBTQ athletes who paved the way
Five-time world champion African-American boxer Emile Griffith, who in 1962 killed a man in the ring who taunted him with anti-gay slurs summed up his experiences as an LGBTQ athlete by saying: “I keep thinking how strange it is. I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin; this makes me an evil person. So, even though I never went to jail, I have been in prison almost all my life.” (Outsports, Feb. 16)
Other professional nonteam LGBTQ athletes have included former female tennis stars Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Renee Richards, the first transsexual female tennis player in the U.S., to currently active athletes such as top ranked featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz, and Fallon Fox, the first transwoman professional mixed martial artist.
Similarly since the 1970s, several LGBTQ athletes have played on professional basketball, baseball or football teams. Some, like Esera Tuaolo, a man of Samoan ancestry who was a defensive tackle in the NFL from 1991 to 1999, waited until after they had retired from sports to come out.
In 1975, David Kopay, a former football running back in the National Football League, stunned the sports world and beyond by revealing his gay sexual orientation.
Other LGBTQ athletes, like Glenn Burke, an African American who played for the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers from 1976 to 1979, was the first and currently only Major League Baseball player publicly out to this teammates and managers, which made his career extremely short-lived.
More recently, other gay male athletes, like basketball player Jason Collins, also an African American, who has been in the NBA since 2001, have waited until they were well into their careers before coming out publicly. With far less public or professional recognition, many lesbian athletes, like Sharnee Zoll-Norman and Brittney Griner, are currently out and active in the Women’s National Basketball Association.
What makes Sam’s potential recruitment to the NFL so significant would be the breaking of the homophobic tradition of professional organized sports to hire an openly gay male. Commentators have compared Sam’s historic coming out to Jackie Robinson desegregating Major League Baseball in 1947, or even to Rosa Parks taking action in 1955 against Montgomery, Ala., bus segregation. These comparisons are understandable since there is not currently even one openly gay male actively playing on a professional football, basketball or baseball team in U.S.
In fact, while there was much hoopla about the coming out of Jason Collins in the NBA in April 2013, he was soon traded from the Washington Wizards, is currently a free agent and has not played in a game since making the announcement.
Solidarity versus bigotry
Sam’s life is a story of a working-class Black gay man who worked his way from growing up poor in a small south Texas town to becoming a first-team All-American football player at the University of Missouri and now entering the NFL.
Before the beginning of his last season at Missouri, he came out to his teammates and to his coach, who showed a high level of support for him. Sam went on to be voted by his teammates as the team’s Most Valuable Player for the season.
On Feb. 15, when right-wingers from the infamously anti-LGBTQ Westboro Baptist church threatened to picket outside the arena of the University of Missouri in Columbia to oppose Sam’s announcement, over 5,000 people pledged their support on social media, “Stand with Sam” buttons and other symbols of support were created, and hundreds of students formed a human wall around the arena to block the 14 bigots. On the same day, Sam received a standing ovation when his image appeared on a jumbotron screen at a Missouri home basketball game.
Sam received positive responses in the media after he came out. Most notably, NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, a former excellent cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys during their championships in the 1990s, tweeted: “Michael Sam isn’t the 1st gay player in the NFL although he is the 1st 2 come out. #realtalk Let’s show him love like a family member. Truth.”
Hypocrisy in NFL & sports
In May, hundreds of mostly Black, Latino and Indigenous young football players will be selected by the NFL’s 32 teams in seven rounds of the NFL draft. This two-day event determines the careers and futures of hundreds of young people devoted to playing football at the highest level.
For Sam, the draft will be the real determination of how accepting the NFL is. When asked about Sam’s draft prospects and how they are impacted by his coming out, many of NFL owners, speaking anonymously for the NFL hierarchy, seem to immediately discount Sam’s draft prospects. “Overachieving,” “average” and “undersized” are now the opinions of the bosses of the NFL regarding Sam. Before he came out as gay, Sam was widely seen as an early third round draft pick. According to sports commentator Peter King in his Feb. 11 Monday Morning Quarterback column, Sam is now considered a sixth or seventh round pick. (http://tinyurl.com/ortyjbt)
What does his lowering draft status mean? Simply put, Sam’s decision to come out has likely cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary per year and a hefty signing bonus. This discrimination is not altogether different from what millions of LGBTQ workers face on the job.
According to the Center for American Progress, gay and bisexual men earn 10 to 32 percent less than similarly qualified heterosexual men, according to 12 studies which take into account nationality, jobs and experience. Similar prospects are true for lesbian workers, who make even less because of gender pay inequality. Trans workers are generally the lowest paid.
While it may seem like things are progressing as more states pass same-sex marriage laws, it is still perfectly legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in employment, education, housing or health care. Thirty-one U.S. state constitutional amendments banning legal recognition of same-sex unions have been adopted. LGBTQ people face more incarceration and harder punishments. Employment discrimination, such as in the case of Sam, is an everyday challenge for LGBTQ workers. In every level of human rights, LGBTQ people face worse conditions than their non-LGBTQ counterparts.
U.S. culture reflects the society. Nowhere is this truer than in how politics are reflected through sports. While corporate media are abuzz with ridicule of Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws as it hosts the Sochi Olympics, the same channels give the green light towards U.S. hypocritical treatment of LGBTQ people in all aspects of denying their full human rights.
The same is true with regard to racism. During the same week, in soccer, Serie A Milan striker Mario Balotelli, of Ghanaian descent, was tragically reduced to tears in front of millions of fans because of racist chants by the opposing team’s fans. Yet no meaningful coverage of this incident can be found on TV.
Throughout sports, the treatment of oppressed peoples, be they people of color, women or LGBTQ people — depends on how convenient it is to the imperialist ruling classes, and how much struggle there is by the people to stop oppression. Progressives must support the tremendous heroic example of Michael Sam, which transcends sports.
Only through struggle will the masses change the reactionary aspects of capitalist society into a culture which respects the dignity and humanity of all people.