One gay student deliberately destroyed his legs to escape the physical assaults of his teammates.
Another was forever known as “the faggot” after he refused to partake in misogynistic locker room banter.
And another never felt right about being a gay football player in a “masculine brotherhood.” “It just feels wrong,” he said. “It’s kind of like a peanut butter and jelly with cheese.”
These are the lived experiences of gay former football players, most of whom played on elite Bowl Championship Series teams sometime in the past 15 or so years. None came out to his teammates for fear of being subjected to the rampant homophobia and bullying that plagued those who weren’t so successful in keeping their sexual orientation a secret, such as the first two players noted above.
Those and other recollections are documented in a preliminary study by Lawrence J. Mrozek, a recent Ohio State University doctoral graduate, and Elizabeth Burns, an academic adviser at Sinclair Community College in Ohio. They interviewed seven former linebackers – six of whom played football at BCS universities across the country – who, sometime after graduation, started self-identifying as non-straight. Five of the interviewees identified as white, one as Latino and one as white and Latino. Mrozek and Burns presented their findings last month at the annual American College Personnel Association convention.
While some experts say that the climate for gay athletes has improved significantly since these players were on the field, it’s clear that at the very least, traces of such hardships still exist.
Although the former players no longer purport to be straight, they all insisted on anonymity for the study because they didn’t want their teams to find out they’d been gay. Those interviews, along with the fair amount of past research Mrozek analyzed for this study, make clear that not only have non-straight football players faced disturbing discrimination from teammates and even coaches because of the hypermasculine nature of the sport, they’ve also feared that coming out would alienate fans and others on the team, and jeopardize their shot at being drafted at the professional level.
But when players were found out, they could become targets. One former student who witnessed a couple of people being outed said that when his team found out a player was gay, “they became like a pariah; they had to be gotten rid of.” In an interview with Mrozek, he described how this drove one player to self-destruction. “Other members of the team found out, and what they basically did, they just started beating the crap out of him whenever they could catch him alone,” he said. “He was so upset about it he ended up – he was actually found somewhere outside of town – because he didn’t want to play football and he didn’t want to tell his parents and, I know it was deliberate…. He mangled up his legs so that he couldn’t play.”
According to a 2005 Sports Illustrated national survey of the general public, which Mrozek cited in his study, 21 percent of people said they would enjoy a sport less if they knew a player was gay, and 22 disagreed that it is “O.K.” for gay athletes to participate in sports, “even if they are open about their sexuality.” Sixty-two percent said America is “not ready to accept gay athletes.” According to one ESPN The Magazine survey, 50 percent of college football players know a gay teammate.
Asked whether public opinion had changed since the Sports Illustrated survey, Mrozek sighed. “Not for football, at least,” he said.
But Eric Anderson, a professor in sport sciences at the University of Winchester, in Britain, who has researched and written about gay athletes in sports for years, disagrees (and calls the Sports Illustrated survey “incredibly outdated”). His research has found that opinion is improving, among both fans and teams. “Things are changing at a rapid rate,” he said. “There’s a huge change in the reception of openly gay athletes. Huge changes in a very small period of time.”
In a study of football (soccer) fans in the United Kingdom – who are “notoriously homophobic,” Anderson said – 90 percent said they would support a gay athlete. And in recent research at American universities, mostly in the South, support was polarized but still strong; about half of black student athletes and almost all white ones said they support gay teammates and coaches. At a university in the more-liberal UK, Anderson said, 97 percent of students on 217 sports teams showed support.
Things inside the locker room are different too, Anderson says. In one recent study that is particularly useful in the context of Mrozek's research, Anderson compared the experiences of openly gay college and high school athletes who came out between 2000 and 2002, which he had gathered for a previous study in 2002, to the experiences of those who came out between 2008 and 2010. (The athletes, who were all male, played in a variety of sports, including football, hockey and wrestling.) He found that the latter group was much more well-received than the former; none of the 26 athletes he interviewed most recently had "any substantial difficulties on their teams" after coming out as gay, Anderson wrote. "Much of the turmoil and anxiety that I found with the 2002 athletes is absent from the 2010 men's narratives," he wrote. "Athletes in the 2010 group came out without the same struggle over whether they thought it would be appropriate or advantageous to them." (Those athletes also reported that the locker room culture for them was vastly different than what Mrozek described in his study. They told Anderson that, unlike in 2002 when homophobia dominated and gay athletes kept quiet, in 2010 teammates discuss their sexuality openly.)
"In my 2002 research," Anderson continued, "most (but not all) of the athletes I interviewed feared violence, bullying, discrimination and/or harassment from their teammates. Some of this is because they had heard their teammates discussing homosexuality negatively. With the 2010 group, however, none expected bullying, harassment, discrimination or violence. This, they suggested, was because their peers were not overtly homophobic, both inside and outside of sports' boundaries."
Anderson noted that this new openness is a product of younger generations, and does not so much exist among coaches and athletic directors. What’s more, he said, the National Collegiate Athletic Association took far too long to even address sexual orientation in its diversity policies. “For years, they just dragged their heels, saying, 'This is up to the university,' and the university said, 'This is up to the NCAA,' ” he said. “What has been effective is the changing generations’ culture.”
The number of athletes who are coming out of the closet is “growing exponentially,” Anderson said, as evidenced by stories on outsports.com and the increasing ease with which Anderson can locate research subjects. "There is a total shortage of D-1 openly gay athletes, yes," he acknowledged. "But you can't really claim that there's a shortage, because you can't really count. And, what would a shortage be? Gay men are about 2.5 or 3 percent of the population, many are attracted to other activities, so what percent play football? And what percent are in the closet? You just have to be careful not to set up a straw man argument."
But while it may be true that people are becoming more accepting of gay athletes, the most significant factor in whether an athlete will feel comfortable is, of course, how he himself perceives the environment. And it appears that not all athletes feel as welcome as those interviewed by Anderson. Carl Sorgen, a research assistant at Penn State University’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, has found that gay athletes experience more harassment and are less satisfied with the climate than their straight peers. Sorgen is in charge of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Queer portion of the NCAA-supported Study on Climate for Student Athletes.
Survey responses varied by sport and level. For instance, of 115 Division-1 football players, none identified as gay, but in many other sports, at least one man did. Sorgen also found that in all sports, 14 percent of gay men experience hostile or intimidating conduct interfering with athletics or academics – double the number of heterosexual men who report such treatment – and 72 percent of those players said the harassment related to their sexual orientation. So while Sorgen’s research shows that most of the gay athletes who are out feel comfortable, the potential for discrimination still exists.
Only three professional football players have come out publicly – after they stopped playing. The latest, Esera Tuaolo, did so after ending his NFL career in 1999. At the collegiate level, at least one Division-1, one Division-2 and one Division-3 athlete have come out to varying degrees while playing.
“The problem is that football, in part, is kind of the last bastion for people who still feel this importance of this hypermasculine environment, and that hegemonic masculinity is still important,” Mrozek said.
But, if the nation does continue to become more progressive, current and future football players may have better things in store for them than Mrozek’s study subjects did. Some student athletes and recent graduates are taking charge of the issue on their own terms. “This is a new generation; this is a new attitude,” Anderson said. “This is a trend.”
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