Big Secret: Football's Version of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

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ESPN Magazine published an anonymous panel poll of 85 college players last year. One of the questions revealed that 49% of the football players revealed knowing at least one gay teammate in the locker room. In the PAC-10 the number rose to 70%.

No one seemed to mind but none of players could or would reveal the names, and none of the gay players would reveal their orientation. Now that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates favors eliminating the U.S. military's Don't ask; don't tell policy about homosexuals in the military, maybe it is time for American football to loosen up  its own militant culture of don't ask; don't tell.

Before I go on it is important to remember why don't ask: don’t tell is so problematic. First, the culture it creates forces individuals who desire to serve to hide an essential aspect of their dignity and humanity. These individuals wish to work with others and express loyalty, courage and physical and mental toughness as they master the skills of combat.

Yet they must hide and pretend to be other than they are. The position requires them to be either hypocrits or live in denial of their identity. Second, the policy requires that the institution and fellow members live a lie. Fellow teammates know but have to pretend not to know, just to help the survival of the gay person.

Military images saturate football and the sport celebrates its disciplined violence along with loyalty, courage, physical and mental toughness. Players, coaches and broadcasters refer to football players as warriors. Coaches love war and military metaphors to mobilize and train their teams. With its stylized combat, physical risks, violence and uniforms, rhetoric and logistical complexity, football presents itself as a surrogate for war. Early advocates of football in college defended it as preparation for soldiering. I guess it makes an odd sense that that the same abhorrence of gay players permeates the informal and formal culture of the sport.

It should come as no surprise to know that as near as I can tell, no active gay football players play football in the United States. In fact only three past NFL players have admitted to being gay. I have searched and there may be some exceptions out there of courageous young men in college or pro ball who have come out but not that I can find. Now this may be the case, but I would bet that a few closeted gay males play football, but cannot announce their sexual orientation because of fear of ostracism, rejection, humiliation and media voyeurism.

A different version of the military arguments probably reflects the fears that demarcate this football culture so powerfully. Having same sex desire loose in the team and locker room  could disrupt morale and make people uneasy. The theory goes that this untrammeled emotional possibility will undermine the easy camaraderie among players. Amatory possibility could heighten tensions if relationships develop within the team and cut across unit loyalty and common mission focus.

All players, even male players, refer to how they "love these guys" on all sides of the gender line. Love plays a critical part in team cohesion. The amalgam of affection, care, loyalty and commitment to each other grounds teams. Playing with and defending each each other and having each other's back, all grow from a kind  of love. The possibility of erotic love entering this can cause heartburn and heart ache to players and coaches.

Interestingly women have carved out a level of social and media acceptability for lesbians within the sports world. Pioneers like Billy Jean King and Martina Navratilova first broke barriers in tennis, but players of diverse sexual orientation inhabit many women's sports as players and coaches. Notice the first declared  pioneers broke the barriers in inidividual, not team sports.

Female and male archetypes may play some role in the level of acceptance. Women athletes move into a traditionally male dominated domain and express virtues normally associated with masculinity such as physical toughness and endurance and team loyalty and courage on behalf of each other. This movement across archetypes from feminine to masculine perhaps makes it easier for women who express masculine virtues to act like or take on male personas in their relationships.

For men, the archetypes cut the other way. The American male language of insult and excoriation deploys anti-gay language as an insult to masculinity. Faggots and associated insults impute physical, emotional and mental weakness. The merciless teasing of young gay males drives this lesson home. The media enshrines male gay images when even gay friendly shows heighten the flamboyant or feminine edge of male homosexuality. So a male athlete who is gay not only confronts the cultural taboos and potential ostracism by team members, but confronts a deep archetype that if they are gay, they embody a form of feminine weakness and lack of physical courage.

The gay football player or gay team athlete confronts two hurdles. The phalanx of possible opposition from their teammates and coach based upon fears and distortions of the emotional relations that undergird their cohesion. Second, they transgress and challenge archetypes in American society about what constitutes male and female virtues and identities. No wonder they don't seem to exist.

In women's sports the power of pathfinders broke these archetypes apart. The great success of women's sports has been to dethrone reigning and confining notions of what feminine consisted of.  While starting in individual sports, gay female athletes proved that cohesion, commitment and team loyalty can coexist with love and different gender orientations. Workers in offices and teams prove this every day around the country.

 Don't ask: don’t tell does not mean fellow athletes don't know. The culture just means everyone must play a costly and hypocritical game of denying each other's full humanity in the interest of maintaining an illusion of manhood. It is too much to ask young athletes to come out on their own, but the beginning may lie with their teammates knowing, accepting and supporting. Only that change will lower the barriers to athletes being able to be themselves with dignity.