The men’s football locker room is a unique, exclusive place generally reserved for tough, hard-nosed gladiators, team managers, and occasionally, coaches. It is an off-the-field refuge where teammates can get away from non-players, reporters, and fans so they can lower their guard and be themselves. Players often relax in the locker room before practice, engage in horseplay with each other to have fun, tell uncensored, off-color jokes, study their play books, kill time listening to music on their headphones, or cover mangled knees, ankles, shoulders, or quads with tape, braces, heating pads, or packs of ice. For male athletes, the locker room creates long-lasting memories. I still remember what my college locker room looked like, felt like, and smelled like, although I haven’t been inside it in more than 20 years.
For most football players, the locker room is a haven – a sacred space. Players who believe in a higher being often gather there to say their final prayers before hitting the playing field. When the game is over, the locker room is the place where players retreat to lick their wounds after a hard fought battle, or run toward it, to shed tears of joy with teammates after winning a championship game. The men’s locker room, to put it plainly, is a space where men can be men, celebrate victory, handle defeat, and bond.
The male bonding that takes place in a single sex locker room – which most straight men presume to be a heterosexual environment – can result in relationships that last a lifetime. Once you are an accepted member of the team, you are forever validated as one of “us.” And even though you may have a different socio-economic, cultural, or racial background than members of your squad, the thing that binds you to the team is your status as teammate. It grants you a lifelong membership to an elite, privileged group of men. The common bond that exists among players is generally the most lasting aspect of being a teammate. It is the thing aging former athletes say they miss the most, long after they leave the game: the camaraderie and the connection they once shared with their friends in the locker room.
Last August, after his senior season, Michael Sam, a 6-2, 255-pound All-American defensive end, came out as openly gay to his teammates. According to Sam, his 132-member Missouri Tigers football team supported and embraced him with open arms, despite his sexuality. As the first openly gay All-American football player on a team that competed for the 2013 Southeast Conference (SEC) Championship, history will forever view Sam and his University of Missouri football team as groundbreaking and cutting edge. Although some of Sam’s teammates may not support him privately, the public show of support and acceptance they demonstrated will unite these men in ways that will set them apart from the teams of yesteryear. With Sam’s public pronouncement that he is gay, social change has finally shifted from the gay rights movement, to pop culture, to the White House, to national and local policy, to one of the last bastions of heterosexual normativeness: the men’s locker room.
Football players from my generation never had to circle the wagons around a gay teammate the way Mizzou players circled Sam. We never had to challenge our heterosexual privilege and confront homosexuality within the context of a hyper-masculine locker room, which left little room for a man to stand proudly and declare that he is gay. Neither myself, nor my college teammates were challenged by the intelligence, charisma, physical presence, moral courage, and forthrightness of a man of Michael Sam’s character.
Looking back, I’m not sure how my teammates and I would have handled an openly gay teammate. Surely, the probability existed that at least one man on our 100-man roster was gay. And if we did have a gay teammate, he certainly did not feel comfortable enough to come out to us, as Sam did to his team earlier this week. Back then, the tenor of most locker rooms in the late 1980s and early 90s reflected the “don’t ask don’t tell” culture of the Bill Clinton administration. We were much more unapologetically homophobic than today’s football players are given the space to be, at least publicly. Of course, homophobia in locker rooms across America still exists – anti-gay sentiment remains widespread – but the men on the Missouri football team are an indication that young men are a bit more educated and aware about homosexuality and homophobia than we were. Homosexuality is increasingly more of an accepted part of our culture. And while there is still resistance and displeasure around having an openly gay player in the locker room, players are grappling with and learning how to accept men for who they are, regardless of their sexuality. The insecurity around masculinity that often engulfs young men the age of Sam and his teammates is slowly eroding, giving way to men who are more secure in their manhood, and accepting of difference. The larger culture’s support of Sam, a potential NFL draft pick, projected to be selected in third or fourth round of this year’s draft, signals a potential sea change from the attitudes of football players and fans from previous eras.
As I reflect back to my mindset as an 18-22 year old young man, I’m just as guilty as other players for creating a hostile space for gay men in the locker room. Like many straight guys, I publicly hurled gay slurs in our sacred space, simply because it was socially acceptable to do so, and because I lacked awareness. My homophobic language had less to do with my religious background, or any moral leanings I had against homosexuality, but more to do with my lack of exposure to gay men and women. I simply was not taught any better. During my college years, I did not have a single friendship with an openly gay male. I also had no male leaders who spoke up for gay rights, or challenged the homophobia of my teammates and of me. Being anti-gay was an accepted part of society, our team, and locker room culture. There was no pushback or consequences for calling someone a faggot, whether it was done in jest, or in the heat of the battle. It was also presumed that everyone in the locker room was straight, so there was no need to censor our language, or rally around a gay teammate, or align ourselves with gay rights.
In the late 80s and 90s there were very few, if any, formal discussions for boys and men, led by men, to openly discuss things like homophobia, gay rights, or gay marriage. There was no way to unpack the notion of a gay teammate without conceding to long-held stereotypes or fears. It would have been shocking, to say the least, for a teammate to stand up in front of the coaches and team and proudly declare that he was gay.
Based on the level of ignorance that I and others had about homosexuality, such an acknowledgement could have been, at worst, dangerous for our teammate, and, at best, an eye-opener and teachable moment for our team. I imagine many of us would have hunkered down in our homophobia, rather than closing ranks as a team. I’m sure that many of us would have used religion to justify our opposition to a “homosexual lifestyle.” Other guys may gone to our head coach, or talked amongst themselves, to express their insecurity, fear, concern, and discomfort about a gay teammate “checking one of us out” in the shower or in the locker room. Even today, there is not enough conversation among men about sexuality in these changing times. More discussions about what it means to be male – straight or gay – should take place in locker rooms across the country.
I am sure anti-gay sentiment, concern, and fear are currently being expressed in locker rooms everywhere as players grapple with Sam’s coming out. But as the Missouri football team – as well as other high profiled athletes, coaches, sports commentators, and bloggers have already shown this week – sports culture is slowly evolving, and players like Michael Sam and college football teams like the Missouri Tigers, are changing the heterosexual culture of the locker room, for the benefit of future gay and straight male athletes.