Sports and Social Change
The National Football League (NFL) is changing. It has a new face, and one that everybody — straight, lesbian, gay bi-sexual transsexual (LGBT) and queer can both recognize and respect.
There have been a number of recent developments within the NFL that show it is taking demonstrable steps to illustrate the same sort of social justice that is increasingly being reflected across America and the world at large. This past winter, NFL hopeful Michael Sams admitted he’s a homosexual to a national audience including the New York Times and ESPN. A few weeks later the quarterback of the Washington Redskins, Kirk Cousins, stated that he and his teammates would welcome an openly gay player who could “help us win” (Huffington Post). And just a couple of weeks ago, representatives from the NFL participated in the YOU Belong Initiative’s second annual LGBT and Straight Allied Youth Sports and Leadership camp.
As if these occurrences were not signs of the apocalypse, representatives from the NFL (including senior executive and former player Troy Vincent and director of transition and clinical services — and another former player — Dwight Hollier) participated in the You Can Play High Five Initiative. You Can Play is an organization headed by former player and openly gay founder Wade Davis, which is dedicated to providing philanthropy opportunities to LGBT youth while utilizing sports (and football in particular) as a medium to reach them.
Quite obviously, the participation of NFL players in all of these events and the expressions of willingness to work with people regardless of their sexual orientations indicates that the image of the organization is subtly changing. Even a cursory interview of the experience of former players who came out as homosexuals after they left the league indicates why such a transformation is both timely and necessary. In a conversation Davis had with Vincent, the former recollected, “I policed my every move and tried to re-create the type of masculinity that I thought was acceptable in the world. I even disclosed how my fear of being rejected, on some level, impacted my ability to perform” (Davis).
In the 21st century, it is no longer appropriate to have players in the NFL — or anywhere else, for that matter — have to hide their tendencies because of a fear of a lack of tolerance. The NFL is one of the most eminent places to being exhibiting parity in terms of diversity for its players. As one of the more influential organizations in the U.S., it has a great degree of agency which it can use to exemplify the virtues of tolerance and equality between people of all types. The world will not be able to change if people such as Davis, and others like him, have to live in fear of rejection simply because they are different from other people.
However, the preceding quotation from Davis illustrates what is actually at the heart of the issue of social change represented by the NFL and sports in general in terms of tolerance and embracing diversity. The NFL is actually one of the modern incantations of ancient European gladiator sports. As such, there is a sense of hyper-masculinity that pervades it, whether one is examining the players, the nature of the game itself, or even the environments and surroundings in which the sport is watched and enjoyed. It is this degree of masculinity that makes coming out so difficult for NFL players (as well as the fact that players routinely see one another naked in locker rooms). And it is just because of this degree of masculinity that the NFL is the perfect organization to show that if diversity is willingly practiced here, it can be so virtually anywhere in America.
Thus, it certainly appears that the NFL is making progress — both in terms of practicing diversity and tolerance within its own ranks as well as providing a viable model for the rest of the country to do so as well. One of the most interesting aspects about this fact is that in doing so the NFL is actually hinting at the larger social significance of sports today. Sports actually operate as a microcosm of the nation as a whole. As such, it can play a substantial part in effecting social change — either for better or for the worse. These recent developments seemingly suggest that the NFL is actively working to do the former of these two options. Perhaps if Sam is actually drafted into the league and the NFL gets it first openly gay player, it can make even more progress with this issue and its players can truly become “heroes” (Blais).
Blais, Michele. “The Way I See it: It’s About What’s There.” The Morning Star. 9 March, 2014. Retrieved online: http://www.vernonmorningstar.com/lifestyles/249069141.html
Davis, Wade. “How the NFL is Tackling LGBT Issues.” NFL Player Engagement. 3 Feb, 2014. Retrieved online: https://www.nflplayerengagement.com/next/articles/wade-davis-how-the-nfl-is-taclking-lgtbq-issues/
“Kirk Cousins of Washington Redskins Says He’d ‘Welcome’ Gay Teammate: ‘Nobody’s Perfect.” Huffington Post. 6 Mar, 2014. Retrieved online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/05/kirk-cousins-gay-teammate_n_4904441.html
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