One question stood out above all others when Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam announced this week that he is gay: Is the NFL ready for its first openly gay player?
It's an uncomfortable truth that some people in the league still harbor homophobic views, and fling derogatory sexual slurs as insults. The allegations against the Minnesota Vikings' coaching staff — accused of cutting punter Chris Kluwe for his outspoken advocacy of marriage equality — laid that point bare.
But the NFL's broader problem is not simply its pockets of sexual intolerance. Rather, it's the pervasive culture of belittlement in which subjugation and humiliation — including, yes, sexual ostracism — are considered character-building tools, and those who crack under the abuse deemed pathetic children.
Viewed in that light, the NFL's long-awaited report on alleged abuse by members of the Miami Dolphins against a teammate cast the significance of Sam's announcement about his sexual orientation into stark relief.
In an unequivocal condemnation, the 144-page report found that lineman Richie Incognito and two other Dolphins players perpetuated a "pattern of harassment" in bullying teammate Jonathan Martin and at least two others. "We find that the Assistant Trainer repeatedly was targeted with racial slurs and other racially derogatory language," the report says. "Player A frequently was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching. Martin was taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments."
In great detail, the report goes on to recount how Incognito taunted Martin as a "half-nigger piece of shit" and joked with a teammate about shooting black people, among other verbal and physical abuse. And while Incognito's actions are, as far as we know, an extreme case of purported hazing gone too far, this kind of debasement is all too common in the NFL.
When Martin came forward with his allegations, he was exhorted to "stand up and be a man," accused of having "acted like a coward and told like a kid." Martin "allowed it to happen," Giants safety Antrel Rolle claimed, because, "at this level, you're a man. You're not a little boy. You're not a freshman in college. You're a man."
That may sound incredibly callous, but as former player Tony Siragusa explained, "The media, and really the real world, can't handle a lot of those things and things that happen in that locker room." In other words: Super manly tough man stuff goes on in locker rooms, and you non-manly men just don't get it.
In any other workplace, the harassment Martin endured would be called out as such. If you told a coworker you were going to defecate in his mouth, you'd get fired on the spot — unless, of course, your employer was a pro team that considers that remark to be a harmless show of camaraderie. It's only in such an environment that Incognito can claim, as he did shortly before the report's release, that "there was no bullying," that it was "just banter both ways between two good friends."
The mentality extends beyond the players. Though the report concluded that most of the Dolphins staff were oblivious to the abuse, it included this telling tidbit:
The evidence shows that [Offensive Line Coach Jim Turner] overheard and participated in this behavior toward Player A. During the 2012 Christmas season, Coach Turner gave all of the offensive linemen gift bags that included a variety of stocking stuffers. In each gift bag except for Player A's, Turner included a female "blow-up" doll; Player A's bag included a male doll. [PDF]
In the hyper-masculine world of the NFL, homophobic vitriol is already part of a larger "pattern of harassment" that conflates harmless pranks — say, shaving a penis into someone's hair — with degradation. And that's without adding to the mix the fraught politics of sexual identity that will come with Sam's entrance into the NFL.
Perhaps the question raised by Michael Sam coming out should not be whether the NFL is ready for to treat a gay player with total respect. Maybe it ought to be whether the NFL is ready to treat players with respect.