Can the NFL Tackle Homophobia?

Can the NFL Tackle Homophobia?

Some National Football League players appear to be turning over a new leaf when it comes to gay rights, but a history of homophobia still haunts the sport.


In the recent past, LGBT issues were only part of the NFL landscape when players held press conferences to assure fans that despite the rumors, they are not gay (without even adding the requisite “not that there’s anything wrong with that“).

But as a direct result of the movement for marriage equality, there are green shoots for social justice becoming visible in the locker room.

Baltimore Ravens three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo came out for full marriage equality, writing in the Huffington Post:

Looking at the former restrictions on human rights in our country starting with slavery, women not being able to vote, blacks being counted as two thirds of a human, segregation, no gays in the military (to list a few) all have gone by the wayside. But now here in 2009 same sex marriages are prohibited. I think we will look back in 10, 20, 30 years and be amazed that gays and lesbians did not have the same rights as every one else. How did this ever happen in the land of the free and the home of the brave? Are we really free?

Scott Fujita, defensive captain of the New Orleans Saints, supports Ayanbadejo’s stance. “I hope he’s right in his prediction, and I hope even more that it doesn’t take that long. People could look at this issue without blinders on…the blinders imposed by their church, their parents, their friends or, in our case, their coaches and locker rooms. Fujita continued, “I wish they would realize that it’s not a religion issue. It’s not a government issue. It’s not even a gay/straight issue or a question of your manhood. It’s a human issue. And until more people see that, we’re stuck arguing with people who don’t have an argument.” Fujita has also endorsed the October 11 National Equality March in Washington.

Given the protective moats of testosterone that surround the locker room, these are gutsy moves.

But as we celebrate the courage of the few, how do we explain the views of the many? Why is homophobia so prevalent in pro football? Former NFL player Dave Meggyesy checks off a whole series of reasons: “Male culture, fear of weakness, being different. Women being seen as second-class humans, and the association of homosexuality with the feminine or woman and weakness. Fear of their own bisexual or homosexual feelings, and often times confusing feelings of affection and sexual feelings.”

There is also the presence in the locker room of the evangelical Christian organization Athletes in Action. I asked Tom Krattenmaker, author of the forthcoming book Onward Christian Athletes, about evangelicals and athletics. He said, “Typically half the teams’ chaplains come from AIA. Like its Campus Crusade for Christ parent organization, AIA has not been a friend to gays. Campus Crusade, in fact, explicitly states on job applications that homosexuals are not welcome on staff.”

Male insecurity and evangelical Christianity are part of the very historical foundation of the sport, and that didn’t happen by accident. Football came of age at a time when America was embarking on imperial adventures around the globe. Football was seen as a way to toughen up the youth so they wouldn’t become “sissies” and a way to teach the very “values” of Christian expansion and manifest destiny. This philosophy was known as “Muscular Christianity,” and its most prominent spokesman was an aristocrat-turned-boxer named Theodore Roosevelt.

Railing repeatedly against “sissies,” Roosevelt saw tough athletic training as a way to build a new Anglo-Saxon super-race. In 1899, Roosevelt wrote:

In a perfectly peaceful and commercial civilization such as ours there is always a danger of laying too little stress upon the more virile virtues–upon the virtues which go to make up a race of statesmen and soldiers, of pioneers and explorers…. These are the very qualities which are fostered by vigorous manly out-of-door sports.

These “qualities” were seen as essential for invading the Philippines, Latin America and the Carribean–planting the American flag and spreading the gospel. “Sissies” need not apply.

In 1911, Albert Spalding, a leader of newly organized baseball and a sporting goods entrepreneur, spoke proudly about baseball as kind of helping hand for US empire, writing:

[Baseball] has followed the flag to the Hawaiian Islands, and at once supplanted every other form of athletics in popularity. It has followed the flag to the Philippines, to Puerto Rico, and to Cuba, and wherever a ship flying the stars and stripes finds anchorage today, somewhere on nearby shore the American national game is in progress.

Football has never been able to make inroads into other countries with the success of baseball or basketball. But within our borders, it is still the number-one cultural celebration of Muscular Christianity. That’s why Gen. David Petraeus flipped the coin during February’s Super Bowl. But it doesn’t have to be this way. When athletes like Fujita and Ayanbadejo speak out against homophobia, they are not only challenging the status quo but redefining a warped vision of manhood in the process.

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