Who's Really to Blame for Homophobia in Sports?

September 13th 2015

Aron Macarow

After the outpouring of support that gay college footballer Michael Sam received on coming out, I was certain that he would be drafted into the NFL. With national support for marriage equality hitting all time highs and big names in the sports world speaking out on Sam's behalf, including former Dallas Cowboy's player Michael Irvin and St. Louis Rams' defensive end Robert Quinn, it didn't seem like being gay and a pro-athlete were mutually exclusive anymore. Unfortunately, the 2014 draft season — as well as the year-plus that has followed since his announcement — tells a different story. It's one that has less to do with the players and more to do with the fans and franchises.


A photo posted by Michael Sam (@mikeysam52) on

Starting the pre-draft ranked 90th by CBS Sports, it took just three hours for sports pundits to drop Sam by 70-points. Why did Sam's sports stock drop so rapidly, moving down to 160th on their pick list? Apparently because CBS Sports knew something that I didn't: being an openly gay man and a NFL player were not in the cards yet.

As reported by Sports Illustrated, anonymous comments poured in from scouts and others in the industry after Sam came out. The prediction? "I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet. [...] It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room," said one anonymous source. "Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier?'" asked another anonymous scout.

More than 19 months later, Sam is still trying to break into the NFL, despite accomplishments prior to his announcement that almost guaranteed his selection.

Where is the former SEC defensive player of the year now? After he was drafted and dropped almost immediately by two NFL teams, Sam is playing in the Canadian Football League as a defensive end for the Montreal Alouettes.

Does homophobia exist in professional sports?

A recent study on homophobia in sports, the largest of its kind, ranked the U.S. last in inclusion for LGB athletes. America scored the lowest on most of the study's key measures, with more than half of all respondents believing that LGB people were "not accepted at all" or were only "accepted a little" in the sports world. (This is nearly double the number of participants who responded similarly in Canada. So should we really be surprising that Sam found a home north of the border and not in the NFL?)

More than three-quarters of straight and gay respondents also felt that American sports culture was more homophobic than general American society. The U.S. has a problem welcoming out individuals in sport. But why?

Some believe the players are to blame

An anonymous NFL assistant coach told SI that Sam was not drafted because franchise owners knew that an out gay player would disrupt a team's dynamic:

"There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle [a gay player] or deal with the thought of that. [...] If you knowingly bring someone in[to the locker room] with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It's going to be a big distraction. That's the reality."

Recent survey data would suggest that some gay players also believe that their teammates and coaches are part of the problem. According to the study, almost half of gay adult athletes and more than one-third of lesbian adult athletes — as well as a staggering 80 percent of bisexual men and 61 percent of bisexual women — remained in the closet to some or all of their teammates. Most of this relates to fear of rejection by their team (44 percent of gay men an 29 percent of lesbians) and concerns about discrimination from coaches and officials.

But this isn't the whole story. Many assume that sports teams are some of the last banner-men for a particular brand of dominant, institutionalized masculinity whose biproduct is rampant homophobia. Studies, meanwhile, have shown increasing support for the LGB community among pro-athletes.

The myth of the homophobia, hyper-masculine pro-athlete

In 2012, a poll of professional athletes conducted by ESPN found that 61.5 percent of NFL and 92.3 percent of NHL players supported marriage equality. At around that time, only 50 percent of everyday Americans approved of marriage for same-sex couples, shutting down the stereotype of the hyper-masculine, assumed homophobic athletes of American football and hockey in comparison to the American public.

The open letter sent to Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. in 2012 by Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe is also a hilarious must-read on this topic. Kluwe further breaks down the stereotype of the pro-football athlete, writing:

"I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won't come into your house and steal your children. They won't magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. [...] You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else."

More recently, a small 2014 survey provided further ammunition that the players may not be the entire problem. Of those NFL athletes who responded to ESPN's questions, 86 percent reported being OK with having a gay teammate. (The main point of hysteria for most commentators — showers shared by gay and straight athletes! — also proved to be a non-issue. More than 3-in-4 respondents said they would be fine showering in front of a gay teammate.) The biggest issue? Becoming "familiar with what can and can't be said around a gay person."

Put differently, NFL player were more concerned with being culturally inclusive of a new gay teammate than they were about showering in front of him. Perhaps society has misjudged our pro-athletes.

If pro-athletes aren't the problem, why couldn't Michael Sam find a place in the NFL?

Looking at Sam's trajectory, would-be and current pro-athletes certainly have cause to fear coming out, which could be why it's so rare for LGB athletes to live authentically during their careers. Evidence suggests that it can be a damaging move, even career-ending.

Most examples of professional out athletes are retired NBA player Jason Collins; he came out after many successful seasons in the closet, shortly before retiring. Other athletes, like former Green Bay Packer Esera Tuaolo, came out after retiring when it could no longer affect their employment.

Mitch Eby, a defensive end at California's Chapman University, points the finger in a different direction: team management. The first openly gay, active college football player in the U.S., Eby said, "I don't think [Sam isn't in the NFL] necessarily because of homophobia with respect to players, instead I think that coaches and owners are reluctant to have him on their team."

Bruce Arians, head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, agrees that it's not the players. But he indicates a different problem in the stadium.

"I don't think the locker room would have any problem with it," Arians told Fox Sports. "The problem would be with the fans."

Homophobia in the stands

Arians oversimplified the issue, and received significant critical feedback for ignoring the known homophobic actions of team owners and managers. But looking again at the recent study of homophobia in sports, findings may confirm his and Eby's comments are on the right track. Survey participants indicated that the most likely environment for a homophobic event to occur was in the spectator stands. (A quick search for same-sex couples that have been booted from professional sports stadiums after kissing lends credibility to this claim.)

The study also showed that 82 percent of LGB respondents had witnessed or experienced homophobia in a sports context. In fact, most surveyed believed that sports were more homophobic than general society. But when compared to statistics from LGBTQ youth in America, the picture changes. 92 percent of students report hearing homophobic slurs frequently in their schools. It seems that homophobia is simply rampant in American society, despite clear changes for the better.

Why it matters that fans may be homophobic

Professional sports is fundamentally big business. The NFL alone raked in $7.24 billion in revenue last season. If franchise owners and team management sense homophobia in the stands, it is more likely that they would be likely to avoid out gay players — right or wrong. This in turn means less players coming out, less positive role models for younger LGB athletes and ultimately slower improvement in the diversity of pro teams.

University of Massachusetts Professor Pat Griffin, considered by many to be a pioneer of research on homophobia in sports, agrees on focusing away from the athletes:

"One way to look at the American results is to acknowledge that there is a lag between perception and reality. Although things are changing for the better and there is more acceptance of lesbian, gay and bisexual people overall, these athletes still fear discrimination. Unfortunately, Michael Sam's experience may reinforce these fears. However, I think we have a generation gap which reinforces the fears that LGB athletes have about possible discrimination. Most straight team members are fine with having an LGB teammate but high school and college coaches, professional sport team owners and officials still have a way to go and this may affect how athletes feel about coming out."

Turning the magnifying glass away from the players and toward the stands and the sidelines — including fans, coaches and owners — may not be comfortable. But it doesn't mean it can't be fun, like the "gay kiss cam" and LGBT night that the Los Angeles Dodgers have hosted annually since 2013, partially in response to prior claims of discrimination in the stands. It could also help keep top talent playing in the U.S. rather than moving abroad.