Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On Homosexuality In Sports: A Fabulous Pursuit!

So, the NFL is doing a thing about Jerry Smith, one of the first Football players to come out (even anonymously) and talk about homosexuality in the NFL.  You can find a link to the source video I stumped upon here.  What's fascinating is that, at one point in the film, Charley Taylor (a former Redskin) is talking about the Redskins' reputation for having the most gay guys.  He says, "we had like 12."  Not only did Jerry's teammates all know he was gay, and not only did they fail to give a damn, but other teams knew it and didn't much care, either.  I had to stop in the middle of the video simply because I got lost in a train of thought, and I therefore needed to ramble!

Jerry Smith; image courtesy of Redskins.com

Gays in Sports - Who cares?  Well, sometimes, bad people do.

If you somehow think this is a new thing, or that somehow the NFL has regressed in terms of gay-to-straight ratios, or that the old line about the Quarterback loving when he gets the snap by putting his hands between the center's legs, near his rear end, think again.  His team-mates may have known, but Smith was deeply afraid of the media finding out and publicizing his true self.  It turns out he had good reason!  People often forget that Glenn Burke was the first active-roster, publicly-acknowledged homosexual of at least the modern era (late 1970's) to play in Major League Baseball.  He claimed his team didn't care, but the managerial staff certainly did - he was traded, his playing time was cut, and he was given little opportunity to rehabilitate from a knee injury before being cut.  Whatever his team-mates may have believed,

To even be affiliated with the struggle for equal protection for homosexuality can severely cripple a career - just ask Chris Kluwe!

Chris Kluwe is one of my all-time favorite sportsmen, even though he has effectively retired from the NFL.  Aside from being a World of Warcraft player, Redditor, and getting an avatar in Shadowrun Returns, he was two incredible things:  The best punter in Minnesota Vikings franchise history, and an outspoken defender of gay rights.  Kluwe alleges that, as a result of his passionate support of equality, his immediate supervisor - special teams coach Mike Priefer - would frequently launch anti-homosexual tirades, including, allegedly, that gays should be packed together on an island and nuked.

Why Do Sports Matter?  This.

Asking some of my socially-conscious friends about sports is often an adventure in soliciting migraines.  The most popular arguments I hear are about how they get paid so much to play a game, while teachers/nurses/fire-fighters/cops make so little money.  There's a valid point there, but being a professional athlete affords people a platform.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia; underneath that helmet is one handsome, hot man.  I'm okay with that.

Sometimes, that platform is just used to make money; maybe the player uses it simply to escape their own impoverished backgrounds.  Other times, it's to raise money for former athletes who didn't make the same mega-bucks, but did come away with a larger share of life-long injuries; or, they donate it to their high schools, as I've seen numerous times in Freeport thanks to Clifton Smith and D'Brickashaw Ferguson.  Still other times, a sportsman will stand up and speak out in favor of equality, or perhaps they'll promote children's gym classes.

For what it's worth, Kluwe is married with a child.  I raise this point solely because his activation has fueled speculation that he, himself, is homosexual.  Speaking one's mind carries risks, I suppose?  Admittedly, Kluwe's career prospects may been damaged as a result of his speaking out on a "political" issue.  (How is equal protection political, again?)  Even if the Vikings owner was encouraging of his behavior, other teams might not have been so generous, as Glenn Burke found out the hard way.  Kluwe also may have signed, as part of his players' contract, some form of rules-of-engagement with the media - I don't know, I'm not a contract lawyer.  That's not the grounds he was originally let go under, of course, so at this point it becomes too much of a speculative ramble for it's own good.  All I can do is say he's fighting for what he believes in, and he has surely given up on a great deal of money to do so.

The Image of Athletes in Society Always Changes.

Let's instead bring this back to where we began:  The premise of gays in sports.  The truth is, these players are not "converting" to homosexuality after they play.  Smith himself never acknowledged his homosexuality in public; it was only after his death at the hands of AIDS that his nature was revealed.  While those close to him knew, his fans were surely surprised to hear it.  I think, ultimately, that's what it's about.

A freshman psychology student could figure out that fans build an image of their sporting idols in their heads, and that image is acid-etched into the fan's mind.  They imprint themselves into that image, and draw parallels between their heroes and themselves.  I happen to love Peyton Manning.  His style of football is just my kind of game, since he thinks his way to victory.  Seriously - watch him call plays!  He reminds me of Bart Starr, not that I was alive to watch him play.  I see that he doesn't have the same physical gifts he did a decade ago, but he makes up for it with his knowledge.  I like to believe I do something similar in my own life.

So, how would I feel if I found out Peyton was gay?  ...I wouldn't care, except perhaps that I'd be proud to hear he was so brave.  But, rest assured, lots of people would see their "reflection" in Peyton crack as their idol suddenly becomes something they aren't quite as comfortable with.  Maybe they don't hate homosexuals, but they just don't know how to deal with this sudden paradigm shift.  (As an aside, I guess my worst "fear" for Peyton would be to discover he was on performance-enhancing drugs.  Remember the Alex Rodriguez backlash?  Yeah, that, only for Peyton.  My Peyton!)  (As another aside, I also only care about PEDs in the context of everyone having equal access; I imagine a future where players have computers in their heads, doing physics equations on interception patterns, and having cybernetic limbs to boot, so that's me.)

Yet, underneath it all, I like to imagine that when an NFL player is ready to come out, they will ultimately find an opportunity for relief as they can finally be true to themselves.  Jerry Smith did an anonymous interview with a reporter where he described the horrible reality of his situation:  Sure, those who knew he was gay didn't outwardly care, but he knew that if the wrong people found out, his career could be in serious trouble.  He'd soon see this fear was justified!  But an end to the double-life?  An end to the anxiety, the edginess, the fear of being outed?  The certainty of knowing, instead of worrying?

Well, maybe that's what a fan should want for their sports star, no matter how vividly we use them as an object of fantasy, and no matter how vicariously we live through them.

Jesse Pohlman is a writer from Freeport, NY.  He is the author of Physics Incarnate, a science-fiction novel available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle formats.  Or, click this link to check out his new webpage!

Thank you for reading!