Getting players in the out?eld

It’s another year of college sports. We’ll again be rooting for our favorite teams and cheering on our favorite athletes. But consider this: How would you feel if your fellow teammate or admired athlete came out as gay?

Some might react negatively. The realm of men’s sports has traditionally been dominated by a culture of masculinity and heterosexuality. To be a successful athlete, one had to be masculine and straight, and the stereotyped effeminate gay man has no place in sports. The mere existence of gay athletes would threaten this desired perception.

These are the reasons why most sociologists have considered sports to be a homophobic institution. But with our culture’s homophobia on the decline, and the NCAA adding sexual orientation to its principle of nondiscrimination in 2000, are college sports still homophobic?

To answer this question, sociologist Eric Anderson interviewed 26 gay male college athletes from 2008 to 2010. Surprisingly, none of the athletes feared harassment after coming out. Instead, they felt included and able to discuss their sexuality openly.

Anderson theorizes that the previous “hegemonic masculinity” is now being replaced by an “inclusive masculinity” which embraces gay and straight. However, he concedes that his small sample consisted of white, middle-class men who probably came out based on their environment. This theory might not be generalizable to other demographics or locations.

What about the environment at UNC? For that answer, I spoke to Associate Athletic Communications Director David Lohse, who came out in 1992.

“The reception was astonishing. I have nothing but really positive things to say about how people treated me,” he said. “I’m proud of the place I work.”

A bisexual UNC athlete told me that he definitely had fears before coming out, but none of them were borne out. He was glad he did because it strengthened his relationship with his teammates and helped him to integrate his identity.

Nevertheless, there is still progress to be made. Anderson reports some enduring use of words like “fag” and “that’s so gay,” although the athletes did not interpret homophobic intent from this kind of discourse. Cricket Lane, assistant athletic director for student athlete development, assured me that this language was one of many diversity topics in which they try to educate student athletes.

Beyond college, there are no active male professional athletes in the U.S. who are publicly out, but Anderson thinks it’s about time. Recent research suggests that sports fans would have unchanged or positive impressions of an out gay athlete, and analysis of the media response to the coming out of John Amaechi in 2007 displayed less homophobia and more gay acceptance.

The sports world was once called the “last closet” for gay men. But now, with more high school and college athletes coming out, the attitudes of their teams will improve — and there’s promise that the sports world will soon leave its homophobic ways behind.

It’s a good time to come out and play.

Thanks for reading.

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