Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Barriers Have To Be Broken For A Reason

Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that NFL draft hopeful and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam of Missouri, who announced this week that he is gay, is going to have to force change upon the NFL and its culture because otherwise, they will never be "ready" for an openly gay player.

In that sense he will be challenging  a deep and discrepant mythology of who is capable of inflicting violence and who isn't. Last week, Jonathan Vilma speculated about how he might feel if a gay teammate saw him naked:
Imagine if he's the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?
What undergirds this logic is a fear of being made into a woman, which is to say a fear of being regarded sexually by someone who is as strong as, or stronger than, you. Implicit to the fear is the gay player's ability to do violence. It exists right alongside a belief that the gay player is a "sissy." ("Grown men should not have female tendencies. Period," Vilma once tweeted.) The logic is kin to the old Confederate belief that Southern slaves were so loyal and cowardly yet they must never be given guns.

The mythology Jonathan Vilma endorses will not fade through vague endorsements of "tolerance," lectures on "acceptance," nor any other species of heartfelt magic. The question which we so often have been offered—is the NFL ready for a gay player?—is backwards. Powerful interests are rarely "ready" for change, so much as they are assaulted by it. We refer to barriers being "broken" for a reason. The reason is not because great powers generally like to unbar the gates and hold a picnic in the honor of the previously excluded. The NFL has no moral right to be "ready" for a gay player, which is to say it has no right to discriminate against gay men at its leisure which anyone is bound to respect.

So yes, it's as much about race as it is his sexual orientation, and this battle is going to be pretty ugly.  But Nancy Goldstein makes the argument that the biggest problem for Sam won't be players like Jonathan Vilma, but the NFL front offices and teams.

If public response thus far is any indication, Sam’s problem won’t be the other players in the NFL. It’s going to be, as former Minnesota Viking Chris Kluwe tweeted, the folks in the front office. While congratulations from Sam’s teammates, other athletes, and well-wishers flooded Twitter (his account drew 18,000 new followers less than an hour after the news broke), the eight NFL executives and coaches who spoke with Sports Illustrated on condition of anonymity were decidedly less optimistic.

"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," said an NFL player personnel assistant, adding, “It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.” An NFL assistant coach called Sam's decision "not a smart move,” saying that it "legitimately affects [his] potential earnings." A former general manager alleged that his concerns were rooted in avoiding a possible media circus that might distract attention from the game: “Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, 'Why are we going to do that to ourselves?'" Every single one of them agreed that Sam’s announcement would cause him to drop in this May’s draft, and today’s news that Sam fell 70 points on CBS’s draft prospect board overnight indicate an early negative response to his announcement. 

Collectively, this is a sad prophecy. But if it comes true, it’ll be a self-fulfilling one set in motion by the homophobia of the NFL’s front office.

What this says to me is that very few people in the NFL want to be the person fired by the owner when Michael Sam "ruins" their team's season.  Anything less than a Super Bowl victory is going to be blamed on Sam and his "negative effect on the locker room".

They're cowards, of course.  But in the end, the cowards always lose.

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