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Defining Masculinity Down: The ‘Man’s-Man Game’

Michael Sam

Michael Sam, seen here in November 2013, told The New York Times over the weekend that he's gay. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Michael Sam, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year out of Missouri, talked about being gay in an interview with The New York Times Sunday, although his college coaches and teammates already knew.

Sam was expected to be a solid NFL draft pick in May, making this a particularly intriguing time for him to come out. Assuming he's drafted, Sam would become the first active NFL athlete to be openly gay.

(Let me say this: I am not, as a writer, a big fan of the phrase "openly gay," because it makes me imagine a person running from house to house yelling "I AM GAY, OPENLY!" which is not what people do. In an ideal world, in the context of sports, it amounts to "providing a biographical detail about yourself," like being "openly from New Jersey" or "openly the second of three sons," but nevertheless, it has a certain cultural significance because it's still rare in certain contexts, so there you have it.)

Within hours, Sports Illustrated delivered the verdict that this would be bad for Sam's career, according to "eight NFL executives and coaches." We do not know who they were, because they were "granted anonymity by SI.com for their honesty." Having pre-framed the comments of these eight anonymous Honest Abes as "honest" and "unsparing" — both adjectives that suggest brave truth-tellers who, sorry bro, are just telling it like it is — Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans quote them as saying a variety of things about how this could all hurt Sam's career.

Consider this bit:

"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," said an NFL player personnel assistant. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."

I'm not sure I've seen so much coded, loaded language since American Pie, but it somehow goes completely unexamined and unanswered. It's presented as merely "honest" to suggest that not only are gay men not legitimately part of a "man's-man game," but that men who would tolerate and be comfortable being around gay men (that they know of) are also not legitimately part of it. "Man's-man game" is used here to define not only gay men as not so manly, but also the entire Missouri football team that, while individuals undoubtedly had their own reactions, apparently didn't give a collective hoot that Sam was gay.

Hopefully, we are all aware by now that there have been plenty of gay people in every single-sex locker room most of us have ever frequented, so we're not really talking here about the "chemical imbalance" created by a gay person, but about the "chemical imbalance" created by the discomfort that this anonymous "honest" person believes other players have.

Furthermore, the faux-bummed suggestion that because [gay slurs] are common, gay dudes can't be in the locker room essentially suggests that until people stop denigrating you, you have to kind of leave them their space, because what's the other option? For coaches to tell guys not to use [gay slur], the way they might presumably ask them not to use [racial slur]? Well ... yes, that would be the solution, wouldn't it? Did that get asked?

It's abundantly clear from this quote that this particular person's suppositions about how "not ready" other people are for such open, open gayness are wrapped up in where he's coming from himself. I suspect, based on every conversation I've ever had in my entire life, that no person who is himself comfortable with the presence of gay players would tell you that the reason Sam won't make it is that it's a "man's-man game." That's not merely real talk, that's deeply uncomfortable talk, and to present it as "honest" and "unsparing" is neither.

Then there's this dude:

"It's human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier?' "

Not to quibble with a perfectly good anonymous lament, but there are perfectly natural humans out there who, confronted with the opportunity to participate in this very scenario would say, "Why yes, I do; that sounds like precisely the legacy I want." It's entirely possible that if you replace "human nature" in this quote with "NFL culture," it's true — I don't know. But for a piece like this to quote a person saying that a desire to maintain existing exclusions is "human nature," and to protect him with anonymity because he's being so honest, is a little dicey, isn't it? Isn't there more to say about this?

It goes on from there — the sneering reference to having your space invaded by Good Housekeeping (lady things will be all over your field! lady things, I tell you!), the hands-in-the-air statements about how it shouldn't be like this but this is just the way it is — it's essentially the article a person who doesn't want his team to draft a gay player is dying to read. It's a list of anonymously provided, untestable arguments about the secret psychology of football that justify, as one of the "sources" says, telling gay players they will have to choose between being out and being in the NFL for maybe another 20 years.

Twen. Tee. Years.

The obvious question here is: If they'd waited more than a handful of hours to run a bunch of anonymous quotes declaring that this kid had ruined his career before it started, might they have been able to also talk to people at Missouri who found that in the end, nobody cared? That it was only as distracting as the players decided it would be? That coaches, who are decades older than players, sometimes overestimate player sensitivity to this particular issue because the world is changing so quickly with regard to it? Can these really be the only eight relevant voices?

How were these folks chosen to be interviewed? How many gay players have they actually ever dealt with? How many gay human beings do they socialize with? How many locker rooms have they ever seen actually respond to something like this, and how much of it is speculation? Why, if all they're doing is speaking to the regrettable but real life of an NFL player, is there any reason not to put their names to their remarks? If you're right that everybody needs to pretend the locker room is all straight dudes for another 10 or 20 years, who are you going to bother by just saying so, under your actual identity?

We can't know, because literally everybody is anonymous. It is an entire piece based on things people aren't willing to stand behind, which is maybe the most amusing context imaginable for swaggering statements about the great tradition of the "man's man." It is a symphony of squeamish whispering, which it's hard to imagine isn't going to make some gay football player out there suspect it's better to say nothing or quit football.

But what I return to, over and over, is that "man's-man" comment and how ironically insulting it is to actual men. Putting aside the fact that when you contrast gay men with "man's men," you sort of open yourself up to jokes the way a turtle on its back opens itself up to being speared with a fork, this kind of strangely gendered talk assumes that there is only one way to be a man: (1) play football, (2) be straight, and (3) get a chemical imbalance from being around gay people. Anything other than that, and you're ... you know. Questionable.

This is happening; . And he's a man, and all the , and if there's going to be a clash over what it means to be a man, it would at least be nice for everybody to fight that battle in public, where people at least know where you're coming from.