Locker Room Readiness

Remember the time when the National Football League said it was not ready for an openly gay player in its ranks?

Gosh, it seems like it was only yesterday.

Oh, that’s right.  It was only yesterday.

Well, okay.  In fairness, it was actually on Sunday.  And it wasn’t the league itself, but rather a handful of NFL executives and coaches who didn’t have the nerve to publicly reveal who they are.

As reported by Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans of Sports Illustrated, these anonymous self-appointed football spokespersons harbor serious doubts that Michael Sam, the University of Missouri defensive end who recently announced he is gay, would be able to make it in the NFL.

The primary concern of these skeptics—if “concern” is the right word—regards the so-called realities of the league’s so-called “locker room culture,” which they imply, with varying degrees of bluntness, is incompatible with open homosexuality.

“There’s nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room,” said an assistant coach.  “If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it?”

On this and similar claims, I might simply refer you to Frank Bruni of the New York Times, whose blisteringly funny Tuesday column, titled, “Panic in the Locker Room!” tore the whole notion to shreds (“How is it that gladiators who don’t flinch when a 300-pound mountain of flesh in shoulder pads comes roaring toward them start to quiver at the thought of a homosexual under a nearby nozzle?”).

Bruni’s point—made by countless others, gay and straight alike—is that this supposed fear of sharing a locker room with gays is just plain silly, since every pro player in history already has.  It’s just that most of them don’t realize it, because the homosexuals in question were either closeted or—gasp!—minding their own business.

I can certainly confirm this assertion as far as it goes.  In the locker room of my middle school gym classes, I was so self-conscious—in such a rush to undress, dress, then get the hell out of there—I never quite found the time to ogle those around me.  What is more, even if I did have the time, I would not have dared use it in such a way:  Being as deeply in the closet as I then was, it could not possibly have been worth the risk to so thoroughly blow my cover in such a potentially explosive environment.

But what I also notice in the language of Sports Illustrated’s anonymous interview subjects is a disconnect that closely resembles the talk in 2008 about whether America was “ready” for a black president.

As you will recall, in every opinion poll on the subject, you’d have 70-something percent of respondents affirming that, yes, America was prepared to vote for a black person for commander-in-chief.  However, when the wording of the question was altered to, “Would you personally consider” voting for the same, the number jumped into the 90s.

In other words, there was a small but measurable group of people whose opinion apparently was, “I’m personally evolved enough not to discriminate between black and white—it’s everyone else that’s the problem.”

In effect, we were a (nearly) racism-free electorate even as we told ourselves we weren’t.  Oh, we of little faith!

That’s the phenomenon that appears to be happening now in the NFL with regard to gays.  In one corner are these higher-ups insisting the league has not reached a point of comfort.  (As another of SI’s anonymous spokespeople put it, “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.”)

And in the other corner—particularly on Twitter—is a seemingly bottomless well of support from players and others who evidently feel that it has.

As such, with the suddenly imminent prospect of an actual, real-life, open homosexual in the league, we have good reason to expect much the same result.  Namely, that following a brief period of unease and awkwardness on the part of players, coaches and the media, normalcy will set in and, soon enough, everyone will be at a loss to explain what all the fuss was about.

For better or worse, this is always how these sorts of things play out:  As a manifestation of that cliché about the impossible becoming inevitable.  We assume X will never occur, then it does occur, we get used to it, and life marches on.

It’s the American way to be skeptical of things we think we don’t understand, but then to realize that we sort of understood them all along.  The key is to have the Michael Sams of the world with the guts to get the proverbial ball rolling.

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