BY SYDNEY BARRY
I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.
The words above are now famous after appearing in Sports Illustrated in April. Jason Collins has become the first active male player in a major sport to come out as gay. It has brought up many discussions about masculinity, what it means to be gay in sport, and the prevalence of homophobia in sport. It is arguable that sport is an institution that continues to perpetuate homophobia even today, and many scholars have done extensive research to see if this is true. Despite the progress that has been made in the U.S. with gay rights researcher has shown the various ways that sport remains a place where homophobia is prominent. But with the emergence of Jason Collins, that could begin to change. This paper focuses specifically on the ways that homophobia is perpetuated through men’s sports.
A way that homophobia continues to be pervasive in sport is through homophobic discourse. This is probably one of the most prominent ways that homophobia is perpetuated in sport. Sociologist and openly gay running coach Eric Anderson (2005) reports that homophobia is perpetuated in sport through the use of terms such as “faggot,” “fag,” “pussy,” and “wuss” (p. 29). These terms are used by coaches and athletes alike to police masculine behavior, and keep guys in line if they make a mistake or act outside the bounds of masculinity. When a gay athlete is out to his team, the use of these terms does not necessarily cease. Even if a gay athlete is not offended by these terms, it does not create a culture of acceptance when these terms are used with disregard to what they mean and how they are used to degrade other people.
Sport as a Closed-Loop System
Anderson (2005) also asserts that homophobia can be perpetuated in sport because sport is a “closed-loop system,” meaning that “when athletes leave the sporting arena, their perceptions of how sport ought to operate go with them” (p. 74). Ideas about how to behave are ingrained in boys and men as they participate in sports, and those ideas, beliefs, and behaviors can be carried throughout life if there is no intervention. Furthermore, it is the “highly merited athletes who then become coaches, who influence another generation of highly impressionable athletes into conservative masculinity” (Anderson, 2005, p. 38). It becomes difficult to break the cycle of homophobia in sport when ideas about how things are supposed to be keep getting regenerated through a closed system.
The way that masculinity is constructed through sports is another way that homophobia is perpetuated in the sporting world. One study of male high school sports concluded that, “individuals who participated in football, baseball, basketball, and/or soccer sometime during the school year were nearly three times more likely to have homophobic beliefs that individuals who did not participate in these extracurricular activities. However, this effect was only observed for male participants, suggesting that the manner in which masculinity is constructed has a substantial impact on their attitudes toward gays and lesbians” (Osborne & Wagner, 2007, p. 607). Sport creates a context in which acting, and being, masculine is of utmost importance. This is especially true in sports that are considered more masculine, such as football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. In many sports, a player is accepted on a team not only based on how much talent he has, but also how well he subscribes to the tenets of “hegemonic masculinity” (Anderson, 2005, p. 24.).
Two of the main tenets of hegemonic masculinity are not associating with homosexuality, and not associating with femininity. If sports teams largely subscribe to hegemonic masculinity, homophobia might exist more in sport because being gay is often associated with being feminine, therefore implying that a gay guy is not masculine enough to participate in sports. In his book Guyland, sociologist Michael Kimmel (2008) notes, “Guys like sports because it’s the easiest way to choose ‘guy’ over ‘gay’ – and make sure everyone gets the right idea about them” (p. 128). Sometimes, even if an athlete is gay, he might use sport to hide his identity because he feels confused or ashamed.
Collins’s coming out shows how wrong the commonly held ideas about being gay are. In his interview for Sports Illustrated (2013) he says, “I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay?” (2013). In the world of hegemonic masculinity, however, if a guy does not fulfill all of the tenets, then he cannot truly be masculine. That is one of pitfalls of sport right now. It is also a pitfall in society that being gay is met with so many stereotypes. Maybe with Collins in the spotlight now, he will be able to confront some of the stereotypes about being gay, and open the door for others to do the same.
What does Collins’s coming out mean for the world of sports? It is probably too early to tell, but editor of the Huffington Post Michelangelo Signorile (2013) believes that whenever anyone comes out, it creates visibility and communicates that gay people deserve respect. He also says, “But it’s especially powerful for someone to come out in the macho world of professional sports, where homophobia has been allowed to flourish over the years.” Collins has overwhelmingly received support since his announcement, but he has also been met with some negativity. This is a sign that homophobia is still a large part of the culture in the U.S. In sport in particular, homophobia occurs through homophobic discourse, the closed-loop system of sport, and the emphasis on hegemonic masculinity.
Anderson, E. (2005). In the game: Gay athletes and the cult of masculinity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, Albany.
This is one of the first books that really looks at homophobia and the construction of masculinity in sport. It is great because it is written from the perspective of a gay coach – the first coach to come out in the U.S. in 1993. It includes interviews from gay athletes, closeted and publicly out, from high school to the professional level in sport. It walks through some of the ways that homophobia is still present in sport, and how sport is also changing to reflect the cultural shift. It is good because it includes a lot of theories and concepts, but it is still accessible.
Collins, J. & Lidz, F. (2013, April 29). Why NBA Center Jason Collins is coming out now. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved from http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/magazine/news/ 20130429/jason-collins -gay-nba-player/
This is the article that Jason Collins wrote to publicly come out. He talks about how he made the decision to come out, and gave some background about his family life growing up. I thought it would be important to include some of what he has to say about being gay in the sporting world and how he dealt with being closeted while playing a more masculine sport.
Kimmel, M. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
This is an all around great book that looks into how boys transition into manhood, and how this transition can be foggy and unclear. So he termed this confusing stage “Guyland.” He talks about how sports are an important part of males defining their masculinity, which often is not consistent with being gay. He also talks about how sport is a way for guys to bond with other guys, whether that is through watching sports of television or actually playing sports.
Osborne, D. & Wagner III, W.E. (2007). Exploring the relationship between homophobia and participation in core sports among high school students. Social Perspectives, 50(4), 597-613.
This research focuses particularly on more masculine sports, which I thought was important to include. This research found that more masculine sports, which they define as “core” sports tend to be more homophobic than other sports and other extracurricular activities. This research looks at both boys and girls in sports, but I chose to focus on what they had to say on boys and sports because that was the focus of my paper.
Signorile, M. (2013, April 29). Jason Collins says ‘I’m gay’ in the NBA: Why this is huge. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michelangelo-signorile/jason- collins-gay_b_3179224.html
I wanted to see what people were saying about Jason Collins coming out, so I looked at a few popular online article sources. I like this one the best because the author talked about the significance of Collins’s coming out and how it could help change sports. He also talked about the role model that Collins can be now, and how that might encourage other men, and women, across the board in sports come out.