The Past, the Present, and the Future
Muhammad Ali, LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick, Michael Sam. These four men have made waves in both the media and the sports world. In some shape or form, these four men have been successful in their athletic endeavours, some more than others. Another thing these four athletes have in common is the controversy that has surrounded or is surrounding them throughout their careers. Ali, James, Kaepernick, and Sam are not only male athletes, they are black male athletes. Not only are they scrutinized for the ways in which they perform in the ring (Ali), on the court (James) and on the field (Kaepernick and Sam), but their race is also brought into discussion.
Michael Sam however, meets a double edged sword as he is a gay, black athlete who was drafted into the National Football League (NFL) and also played in the Canadian Football League (CFL). Of the many sports played throughout the world and North America, football is viewed as one of the most masculine sports due to its aggressive nature (Hardin et al. 185). To be homosexual as well as play football and be really good at it, not only goes against the cultural understanding of masculinity—“real men must not be women and must not be gay”—but the entire understanding of football as being a ‘real man’s’ sport (Mazzie 136).
In this blog, I will look at racism and the history of homosexuality in sports, specifically ‘masculine’ sports (football, basketball, boxing). I will also discuss the current issues surrounding Colin Kaepernick and Michael Sam, as well as, past issues with Muhammad Ali and LeBron James. I am also going to touch on the difference in treatment of: homosexual male and female athletes, homosexual and straight athletes, and team athletes versus individual athletes. While also bringing race into some of these discussions, I believe it is important to observe the ways these athletes have been treated and notice if there has been any cultural progression, or if we as a society are still in need of changing the ways we view others and our beliefs.
What Can the Past Teach Us?
Dave Zirin has stated there are “two categories of “political athletes”: the “explicit” and the “representative”. Mohammad Ali and LeBron James fall into the category of “explicit political athletes”. These are the types of athletes who are willing to risk their “cultural capital” to voice their opinions on the injustices they see (Para. 1).
Beginning in 1967, Muhammad Ali led “the modern era of athletes speaking out” through his refusal to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Ali did not feel it was right to participate in acts of violence against other people of colour. Just under fifty years later, NBA athletes LeBorn James, Kyrie Irving, Jarrett Jack, Alan Anderson, Deron Williams, and Kevin Garnett, as well as NFL players from both the St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warm ups. These athletes participated in a form of protest regarding the police killings of unarmed blacks (Abdul-Jabbar Para. 8). Now two years later, joining the category of “explicit political athlete”, San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, is also making waves in the media. Through his refusal to stand during the American national anthem, Kaepernick is protesting the injustice and police brutality that has occurred and continues to occur in America.
Although these athletes have risked and continue to risk not only their jobs and source of income, but popularity amongst fans and the media, there are athletes who have remained silent. Two athletes “notorious” for avoiding matters of politics and personal beliefs are NBA star Michael Jordan, and American professional golfer, Tiger Woods. Not only are these men extremely popular athletes with a large platform to deliver their opinions and beliefs, but they are also black, meaning the oppression and inequality Ali and Kaepernick have fought and continue to fight against, is an issue that also affects them. However, “they stand only for the mighty dollar”, and are not willing to risk their salaries to bring awareness to the injustices they see (Grano 192).
Another social issue which has been around for decades is homosexuality in sports. It is extremely common for athletes to come out as gay once they have retired. Former NBA athlete, John Amaechi, retired in 2003, but in 2007, returned to sports pages in the United States after publicly announcing he was gay (Hardin et al. 182). In 2013, the first male athlete to come out as gay while still active in a professional sports team is Jason Collins of the NBA. For decades, athletes in non-team sports, such as Greg Louganis (Olympic diver) and Martina Navrativola (tennis), have been out (Billings et al. 142).
In 1986, former NFL Washington Redskin, Jerry Smith, became the first professional athlete known to pass away from AIDS, although Smith never publicly acknowledged he was gay. Greg Louganis did not come out as gay until after the 1988 Olympic Games, and only after he was diagnosed as HIV positive (Billings et al. 146). In 2013, British Olympic diver, Tom Daley, came out on his YouTube channel at the age of 19 (Hattenstone Para. 4). Unlike Justin Fashanu, the first black soccer player in Britian, who came out while still playing, Daley was met with acceptance and love. Lady Gaga would even call Tom Daley “inspiring” (Hattenstone Para. 35). Fashanu would tragically commit suicide after being accused of sexually abusing a young, white male. Making it apparent that “it was actually more important to be heterosexual than to be white” (Hardin et al. 186).
Satirical news site, The Onion wrote an article on gay NHL players—there are none who have publicly stated they are gay—and I found this article to really highlight the ridiculousness of focusing on the sexuality of an athlete rather than their athletic ability. The end of the article states, “But without a doubt, none of this would have been possible without the unbelievable altruism and open-mindedness of the NHL fan base,” added Melrose, “It’s far easier for players to be truly comfortable in their own skin knowing so many fans are gay too.” (The Onion Para. 14). This goes to show that not only is there homophobia within sports leagues, but also amongst fans, making it difficult for those who are homosexual to feel comfortable coming out.
Have We Learned From the Past?
On February 9, 2014, Michael Sam publicly announced he was gay. A student athlete at the University of Missouri, Sam was no longer just a football player, he was now “a gay man who played what American culture considers one of the most masculine sports ever” (Mazzie 130). However, this announcement would make for a long road in playing football professionally.
Drafted in the seventh round to the St. Louis Rams, Sam would eventually be cut and play with the Dallas Cowboys practice squad before being cut again a few weeks later. Following his lack of success in the NFL, Sam would appear on Dancing with the Stars, and sign with the Montreal Alouettes (CFL) in 2015. After playing one game with the Alouettes, Sam left the team “citing mental health concerns”. Currently, Michael Sam is “training and his goal is still to make it onto a NFL roster in the next year or two” (Gibbs Para. 7).
Dave Zirin has pointed out that Michael Sam is the only SEC Defensive Player of the Year from the past eight years to not be on a NFL roster currently (Gibbs Para. 8). Although he does not regret coming out, Sam has stated “he wishes he had thought more about his long-term goals before coming out so quickly”. Even though he has had a positive impact on the LGBT community, “he could have made even more of a difference if he had made a roster and had a successful rookie campaign announcing that he was gay” (Gibbs Para. 10).
The NFL tweeted their support to Michael Sam when he first announced he was gay, tweeting “a link to its workplace non-discrimination policy”. However, Sam feels the NFL “should do more” (Mazzie 131). “The NBA is very outspoken and they do a lot for the LGBT community”, the NBA is currently leading the charge in terms of accepting homosexual athletes (Gibbs Para. 14).
The main topic currently making headlines in the NFL is Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the United States’ national anthem. Similar to Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted, Kaepernick refuses to stand because “there are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust [that] people aren’t being held accountable for…” (Abdul-Jabbar Para. 4). Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks stated “you need a white guy to join the fight. The white guy is super important to the fight” (Peter Para. 7 and 8).
Last year, while participating in a Public Service Announcement targeting racism, Tom Brady took a pledge. Brady stated, “I will speak up whenever I know discrimination is happening and I will stand up for victims” (Peter Para. 1, 2 and 3). Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the American national anthem in August, now in December, other athletes have since joined him in protesting but there has been no sign of solidarity or protest from prominent white athletes.
The only white professional athletes who have knelt during the national anthem are three women: Megan Rapinoe (soccer), Jeanette Pohlen (basketball), and Maggie Lewis (basketball) (Peter Para. 5). Having a white athlete like Tom Brady join in the protest would really make a difference. Being the star quarterback of a football team who recently won the Super Bowl (2015), Brady has the potential to bring awareness to the realness and seriousness of the social injustices occurring in the United States. With the support of prominent male athletes like Tom Brady, others throughout North America will hopefully realize there really is a problem.
A Game of Comparison
Staying with the topic of race and football, it is important to understand how culturally we relate black male athletes to highly competitive and aggressive team sports such as American football and basketball. In terms of individual sports, black male athletes are typically associated with boxing and sprinting, events requiring both strength and explosiveness. The commonality amongst these sports is that each provide a strong sense of masculinity (Anderson and McCormack 145).
In contrast, unlike the power associated with black male athletes, gay male athletes are viewed as participating in “feminized terrains” and non-aggressive sports such as figure skating and diving (Anderson and McCormack 145). This however, leads to major confusion when an athlete such as Michael Sam (6 feet 2 inches, 255 pounds, football player) or Jason Collins (7 feet tall, 225 pounds, NBA athlete) comes out as gay (Billings et al. 143; Mazzie 130). All of a sudden the cultural understanding of sport is proven wrong; “black athletes come in only one sexuality and gay men come in just one colour” (Anderson and McCormack 146).
It is also important to look at the way black male athletes are viewed in terms of success. There are many black male athletes in both the NBA and NFL, yet not all athletes are viewed as successful. Richard Sherman, a cornerback for the Seattle Seahwaks, is considered a success story. Growing up in Compton and graduating from Stanford University he is viewed as “one of the many prominent African-American athletes who seem to embody…the desirability of the American Dream”. Many media outlets have celebrated Sherman for “defying stereotypes on where you come from, what you look like, and succeeding no matter what other people think about you” (Tompkins 293, 301 and 302).
If black male athletes and male athletes in general are presumed to be straight and “masculine”, then how do we culturally view female athletes? Unfortunately, female athletes are “often assumed masculine and, thus, lesbian” because sports are viewed as “masculine pursuits” (Hardin et al. 185). This means when a female athlete publicly acknowledges she is a lesbian, society does not think twice. When Sheryl Swoopes of the WNBA came out in 2005, journalist Pat Forde stated, “what will take considerably more courage is for a man to do the same thing” (King 272 and 279). This statement proves that homophobia exists in sports, but is mainly directed towards males, as females are presumed lesbian until proving otherwise.
Team sports are associated with masculinity and aggressive behaviour, individual sports with an emphasis on grace (diving, figure skating) are associated with femininity (Dworkin and Wachs 330). So when a male athlete from a team sport contracts HIV, he is viewed as a victim and hero because ‘only straight men play team sports’, but when an individual sport athlete contracts HIV, he is viewed as a carrier.
Both Magic Johnson (NBA) and Greg Louganis (Olympic diver) are HIV positive. Johnson’s “promiscuous behaviour…only becomes a problem when he contracts HIV/AIDS…” and the blame is placed on “…heterosexual women as the harmful (sic) agents and heterosexual men as the “innocent” victims…” (Dworkin and Wachs 330). However, when a gay athlete like Louganis contracts HIV/AIDS, instead of being viewed as a “hero for living with stigmatized illness”, he is viewed as a “carrier who was morally responsible for alerting the heterosexual community to this risk” (Dworkin and Wachs 332).
So what does all this mean? From the information I have gathered, racism and homophobia are still immensely important issues in our society. In general, inequality is still a major issue in North America. Sports, which are often viewed as an arena for people to come together, are also an arena that greatly displays racism and homophobia, not explicitly however. When American athletes cannot come together in protest against police brutality in their own country, how can they come together and be examples to combat racism and homophobia?
Professional athletes are given a large platform. For those who are “explicit political athletes” as Dave Zirin says, this platform is used to bring attention to injustices in the world. However, a main concern amongst most athletes is losing money. Athletes do not want to speak out or risk bringing negative attention to themselves if there is a chance they can lose endorsements, contracts or other forms of payment. In order for there to be change in the way we view sports culturally, there needs to be acceptance for all, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual, black or white, the only aspect that should matter is the athletic ability of these athletes.
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