As of 2017, there are only eleven known gay football players in the NFL’s 97-year history. This is likely because fans and players of American football tend to associate masculinity with heterosexuality, thus alienating those who identify as gay. We argue that gay American football players in the NFL feel the need to repress their sexuality because the general respect of fans is largely dependent on players’ sexuality before their athletic ability. The following pictures consist of male football athletes that either felt the need to repress their sexuality or embrace it in order to break through the social norms. In addition, pictures show that qualities stereotypically associated with masculinity, particularly toughness and aggression, are necessary to have (if one is to be accepted) in the sport of football.
In this image, Giants player Odell Beckham Jr. is yelling at a member of the Panthers who was barraging him with anti-gay slurs. This is just one of many instances throughout Odell’s career in which players or fans have remarked on his “feminine” mannerisms and hairstyle. Odell has never explicitly denied claims of his sexuality but has never come out as gay either. This ambivalence could signify that Odell is straight and does not take offense at such remarks, as he understands that his prowess is more important. On the contrary, it could signify he is gay but reluctant to come out because of the hate he has received. Regardless of the answer, the debate still overshadows the fact that he recently became the highest-paid wide receiver in football, a reflection of his true talent.
The phrase “real men play football” exemplifies the heteronormativity of football–that is, the state in which heterosexuality is defined as normal and homosexuality is opposed (Cashmore & Cleland, 2011). Although fans will publicly deny it, they associate “real men” with straight players whom they admire. This is evident in the responses of 3,500 participants who gave their opinions about the presence of gay players in 2014. 93 percent of them said homophobia should not be a part of football, but those same participants were shown to scream homophobic slurs at players (Cashmore & Cleland, 2011). Clearly, the real men being referred to here are the straight players.
This picture illustrates that physical aggression is encouraged in football as it is necessary to play good defense in order to stop the other team from getting a touchdown. However “by rewarding physical aggression with on-the-field success and increased prestige in the sport, [it increases] off-the-field violence toward perceived outsiders and ‘weaker’ students” (Steindfelt, 2011, p.7). Due to fans associating homosexuality as not masculine, therefore weak, gay football players tend to mask their sexuality by being physically aggressive on the football field.
If someone plays football, they tend to have a large number of friends who also play football as they train together, play together, and practice together as a team. Naturally, when people spend a lot of time together they tend to form friendships. This is not a bad thing but does become a problem when “playing high school football and being embedded within a football network significantly [increases] the risk of serious violence” (Steindfelt, 2011, 8). This violence then could be used on the field in the form of physical aggression which helps protects the player’s hidden identity. In addition, it could be used against weaker, homosexual males to mask one’s own sexuality in order to pull off the masculine persona that fans look for in a football player.
Even in news articles, the media portrays football players as strong and tough. Notice how the font for the title is specifically chosen to look tough, as well as the football players who are standing in a stance that represents a tough persona. This public image affects the fans outlook on the players as the fans will think they are always this macho in real life. It is these types of pictures that fuel the pressure for a gay football player to hide his sexuality and act masculine.
The character referred to here is not athletic ability so much as sexuality. An interviewed football fan agreed that sports are about exploiting weaknesses in one’s opponents, but then followed with “…being seen as gay, and therefore unmanly, would be too good an opportunity to miss” (Cashmore & Cleland, 2011). His quickness to use sexuality-rather than skill-as a weakness shows that fans’ admiration of players hinges on the players’ sexual orientation. These attitudes will contribute to gay players’ fears of having their sexualities exposed.
Ryan O’Callaghan was an NFL football player for the New England Patriots. Throughout his career as an NFL player, his plan was to hide his sexuality from his teammates and fans, and when got out of the NFL he would commit suicide. We think that O’Callaghan struggled with coming out as he was constantly surrounded by guys who were very masculine and straight. O’Callaghan did not have the support system he needed in order to feel comfortable in a career that praises masculinity and heterosexuality. Only after his career finished did he start to open up to a psychologist and his teammates. In doing so, he started to become more comfortable living his life as he no longer had to hide his sexuality. O’Callaghan now lives his life with the thought of suicide rarely ever crossing his mind.
This magazine cover describes Aaron Rodgers as a “fearless” superman and implies his potential to lead his team to victory in the Super Bowl. Although this cover evokes Rodgers’ talent and does not excessively masculinize him, it is telling that this article was publicized but his choice to leave the field earlier in the season was not. When teammate Donald Driver convinced Rodgers to leave a game post-concussion, very few online articles and newspapers discussed the event, and Sports Illustrated–which is heavily consumed by football fans–was not one of them (Anderson & Kian, 2012). This shows that sports media outlets are reluctant to publicize content that opposes the “impenetrable player” image and potentially de-masculinizes the players. Not only is homosexuality considered un-masculine by this media, but logical decision-making is as well. Rather than portray players making smart decisions that will impact their career and ability, Sports Illustrated focuses on marketing toughness as if it is the most significant quality of players.
Professional football players have repeatedly been bombarded with homophobic slurs from fans and fellow players alike. Although said fans will deny it and put on a facade of inclusivity, players take the criticisms to heart and, as a result, feel an urge to assert their heterosexuality rather than their talent on the field. This pretense of “masculinity” can start as early as high school due to the toxic nature of football networks. From that point on, the desire to include masculinity in one’s athletic identity only increases. As a result, NFL players and media promote heterosexuality as a necessary trait in the world of football. Ryan O’Callaghan, Odell Beckham Jr., and Aaron Rodgers are all players whose sexuality have taken more precedence in their lives than their athletic abilities. O’Callaghan struggled to accept himself because of his homosexuality; Beckham is verbally assaulted by players despite his outstanding performances as a wide receiver; and Rodgers is only idolized for his “fearless” masculinity that is promoted by the same people who promote heterosexuality as the norm. The players, media, and fans of NFL have therefore exposed the attitudes surrounding football as not being skill-centric so much as sexuality-centric.
Anderson, Eric, & Kian, Edward M. (2012). Examining Media Contestation of Masculinity and Head Trauma in the National Football League. Men and Masculinities, 15(2), 152-173. DOI: 10.1177/1097184X11430127.
Cashmore, Ellis, & Cleland, Jamie. (2011). Glasswing Butterflies: Gay Professional Football Players and Their Culture. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 35, 420-436. https://doi.org/10.1177/0193723511420163.
Steinfeldt, Jesse A, et al. (2012) Bullying Among Adolescent Football Players: Role of Masculinity and Moral Atmosphere. American Psychological Association, 2, 340-353. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c0a6/c9ddc349c8447411e9ccb86a8f4097aeeec9.pdf