Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Between the Lines: Covering (and Uncovering) Sports

Things really seem to be progressing. Take, for example, the responses to Jason Collins, the first openly gay male athlete in a major professional sport, who was just signed to a contract with the New Jersey Nets.  Or the announcement of Missouri football star who announced he was gay just before the NFL draft.

(We like the "first ever..." narrative so much we seem quick to forget about women athletes such as Martina Navratilova, who came out over 30 years ago or even male athletes such as boxer Orlando Cruz or the professional lacrosse player Andrew Goldstein since they did not compete in the so-called "big four sports").  Many have greeted Jason Collins and Michael Sam with applause and high fives.  But, to what extent do the cases of Collins and Sam's brave articulation of their identity really represent progress? The answer may be found in those very high fives.

Consider the case of Glenn Burke, the man who invented the high five: an article on "the origins of the high five." The article itself is fascinating, particularly in light of our consideration of stories and storytelling. Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Dodgers and later the A's invented the phenomenon, but the behind-the-scenes stories are where the real action lies here.

You see, Burke was a gay man at a time when no professional athlete in "major sports" had ever come out. That Burke -- and presumably many other gay athletes -- had to keep his orientation secret in 1978 may come as no surprise. After all, many gay professional athletes still think they must keep their identities secret for fear of hateful reactions from teammates and fans and the loss of advertising revenue. (Think of recent ex-pro athletes Tualo Esera in the NFL, Billy Bean in the MLB, and Jon Amaechi in the NBA, who came out when their careers were over).

So, do you see Jason Collins and Michael Sam's announcements as a cause for celebration or an opportunity to lament the pain of earlier -- and current -- athletes who could not come out? Some, including Josh Levin at Slate  have even seen a new form of homophobia in the responses to Jason Collins' announcement.  Levin cites a chorus of people who aggressively shout "I don't care" or "This means nothing" as a means of shutting down the coverage altogether.

How are the storylines of sports are being managed today? Whose stories are privileged? Whose stories are silenced? What are the "paginas en blanco" in the world of sports? Are the lines drawn differently for men and women? For athletes of different races, classes? Do we see in the case of Jason Collins and others reasons to be optimistic for the future of sports?  


Josh Sussman said...

I find it interesting that Josh Levin would call responses to Jason Collins's announcement "a new form of homophobia." I do not agree. I think there has been a great deal of progress regarding gay rights in the past few years just judging by how more and more states are legalizing gay marriage. Although Glenn Burke and other gay athletes had to hide their identity in 1978, I would argue that Jason Collins and Michael Sam's announcements are not a new form of homophobia, but rather a new form of hope for gays in 2014.

Alex Wyse said...

I agree with you Josh, I do think it provides some hope for gays. It is great that athletes finally feel comfortable enough to reveal their sexuality. It shows that there must be some sort of improvement in terms of homophobia, whether it be players not making as many hurtful jokes about other athletes' sexualities, fans not judging players based upon their sexual orientation, etc.
However, it is disheartening that we are just now starting to be accepting of gays. This process has taken way too long, so in a way I think it is also a reason to lament previous athletes' pain. Gay athletes who were active in professional sports in the past could not be themselves, and I think this is primarily because they were concerned that other athletes (especially in sports like football and hockey, which are notorious for having players that trash talk) would ridicule them for being different. The fans rarely hear about hurtful comments that take place on the field (or court, or rink...), so in a way I think this is a pagina en blanco in sports history.

Shannon said...

I think that it is awesome that the above athletes and others felt comfortable coming out. I really think that we need to start taking steps like these to get in a place where someone, no matter how famous, is not defined by their sexuality.

William E. said...

I think that this is very similar to the breaking of the color barrier during baseball during the time of Jackie Robinson. I think with this event, many more players will feel more comfortable being able to come out in major professional sports. Sports in general seem to be very progressive as of late and i think it is great that more players are feeling more and more open to coming out in the locker room.

Luke Iida said...

Like Will was mentioning, I think it’s great that the individuals who do choose to come out to the public are greeted with open arms and amazing support. But what the media doesn't put on its headlines are the negative remarks and signs of disapproval that is holding the other 99% of gay athletes from coming out. Criticism from public figures such as Rush Limbaugh, who doesn't want this kind of news “Rammed down everybody’s throats”, only shows a new kind of homophobia-ignorance. I think when we publish these events we often only include the positive feedback (which is good), but what’s hidden from the sports pages are these homophobic comments that need to be confronted if we want to continue the movement of gay rights in sports.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Luke! I think it is wonderful how we, as a nation are celebrating the individuals who brave the stereotypes and come out. I think that we can really address the problem and move forward with success by analyzing the negative remarks as well. I see this as an optimistic anecdote for the history of sports.

David H. said...

I believe these recent announcements are great for the sports world as well as for the gay community. Coming out after your career is over is still extremely brave, but to come out in Michael Sam's case where he hasn't even been drafted into the NFL yet is remarkable. He knew the announcement could possibly cause him to drop farther in the draft, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet he made the announcement anyways because it was important to him. I feel like moments like these give people not in only in sports, but everywhere added courage to possibly come out themselves, as well as support for those who have.