“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
The news from Jason Collins shook the world Monday morning. Shook it so hard that the Twitter birds were stumbling over themselves to get out of their nests. Within 10 minutes of being posted on the Sports Illustrated website, the article had over 800 comments and Jason Collins was a trending topic.
Collins, who just finished his twelfth season in the NBA, became the first active male player to be openly gay in any of the four major American sports. Yet two weeks ago on April 18, when the number one WNBA draft pick Brittney Griner came out as lesbian, there was hardly a ripple.
Are expectations different for men and women in sports? Whereas Griner had practically been labeled a lesbian already, many assumed Collins to be the perfect example of a virile, heterosexual man. People often worry that looking up to athletes affects the way we look at alcohol, safe sex and drug use. However, less attention is paid to how sports reinforce strict gender roles.
Matthew Genuchi, a professor of psychology at Boise State, with research focusing on men and masculinity, calls American sports “a traditional environment of hyper-masculinity.”
According to Genuchi, male sports value such norms as dominance, assertiveness, non-intimacy, power and competition. Athletics became a way for men to showcase these characteristics.
“Sports historically was seen as a male preserve,” said Shelley Lucas, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at Boise State. “This is something that boys and men do to learn about, prove and demonstrate their masculinity,”
Collins’ coming out is one of the most recent and significant challenges to some of these traditional notions.
“People who care about these kind of things are hopeful that this is going to open the door to more active athletes coming out and being more comfortable,” Lucas said.
Challenges to gender norms
The current state of gender norms in sports may be in flux. After February’s NFL Scouting Combine, both Manti Te’o of Notre Dame and Nick Kasa of the University of Colorado reported teams asked them questions pertaining to their sexuality. These questions would be illegal in nearly any other job interview.
MLB, the NBA and the NHL have started fining for homophobic slurs used during games. However, slurs are still being used. The NFL has never reprimanded a player for using slurs.
“They’re very invested in presenting a certain style of hyper-masculinity: violence on the playing field, but we also see it off, big, powerful musculature, it’s about brute force, it’s about domination,” Lucas said. “The sports culture of hockey, baseball, basketball, the NFL, seem to have a lot riding on that particular view of masculinity.”
But there are signs of change as well. NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo have filed a lawsuit against the NFL. Their brief states, “For far too long, professional sports have been a bastion of bigotry, intolerance and small-minded prejudice toward sexual orientation.”
Recently, several retired players, athletes in foreign leagues and female athletes have come out. There has also been an increase in activism among players who are straight allies.
“I think in the United States there has been a shift in that there is more openness and acceptance of nontraditional masculine norms,” Genuchi said. “But … I think these predominant norms still exist and still have an impact on men.”
Even Collins discussed this in his announcement: “But I’ve always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn’t make you soft?”
As free agent this summer, it is not known where or if Collins will play again. While it is almost certain he will not be the last openly gay athlete in American sports, the dominant culture of hyper-masculinity has not ended.
“I don’t imagine that just one person coming out is just going to erase all the homophobia that is out there,” Lucas said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how teams and sponsors and people who speak up, who are silent. Because that will be saying something as well.”
What this means for women
Sports have been equated with masculinity for a long time. Because of this it seems unnatural for women to possess these characteristics and have an interest in displaying them.
Lucas noted that working class women and women of color were always physical in their labor. The idea that it is improper for women to sweat and be physical came out of white, middle class society. However, these views still affect perceptions of gender in American sports today.
Women have made great strides since Title IX was passed in 1972. The number of women participating in sports has increased tenfold, and women have found some space in a traditional male sphere.
But that has created other challenges. If a woman is too aggressive or athletic she may be considered “mannish” or assumed to be a lesbian.
“I like to call it this idea of sport-induced lesbianism,” Lucas said. “For women, sport becomes a way to raise suspicion that you’re a lesbian.”
In today’s society there are sports that women can play with little to no question, Lucas suggested.
“Women who are in gymnastics and tennis and swimming, figure skating—they’re meeting the cultural expectations of what a woman is,” Lucas said.
The number of girls and young women playing sports have helped push this change into the cultural space.
“There still is a pretty strong gender stereotype about who’s expected to play sports and what is normal. Although that certainly is changing,” Lucas said. “We see tons of little girls out there playing sports. I think that has helped with changing some of those gender roles.”
How children are affected
Children learn perceptions through role models and examples. Many youth, especially adolescents, are drawn to athletes when looking for these role models.
“It shapes who they (children) are and what they think is within the parameters of acceptable behavior,” Lucas said.
The Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a study that showed 93 percent of youth between the ages of 10 and 17 who participated in at least one sport considered a professional athlete to be a role model. That is higher than the number of kids who listed their parents.
“We look to other people for how we should be,” said Kimberly McAdams, Ph.D., another professor of psychology at Boise State. “We focus on people who are powerful and attractive because of course we want to be those things ourselves.”
For young men especially, the hyper-masculine culture starts long before the professional and college level. From a young age they are taught to represent one cultural norm.
“One message young men and boys are learning: Don’t do feminine things,” Genuchi said. “An implied part of that is we don’t talk about homosexuality. Male athletes don’t talk about it.”
That can make finding space of acceptance hard for young, gay athletes, who have been watching for signs of acceptance. In recent years, NBA players have been fined for using homophobic slurs on the court, Lucas noted.
“Role models can just as easily inspire bad behavior as good,” McAdams said. “It’s all about the perceptions we hold. If that person seems like someone we want to be like, we emulate them no matter what.”
In that at least Collins has offered a small ray of hope to other gay athletes: that they aren’t alone.
“I think he’s a great role model for athletes who want to come out, telling his story the way he does,” Lucas said. “For younger athletes, that’s especially important.”
In his announcement, Collins revealed his reasons for coming out. He said he wanted to tell his story after watching a friend march in a 2012 gay pride parade, sitting in his apartment less than three miles from where the Supreme Court was hearing arguments about gay marriage, and being instilled with a sense of mortality by the bombing at the Boston Marathon.
Collins also explained that he wears number 98 as a silent statement in remembrance of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming who was kidnapped, tortured and hung on a barbed wire fence in 1998. It was his one gesture of solidarity.
“I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore,” Collins wrote. “I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, ‘Me, too.’ ”
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