June 09, 2014

Sports and Representations of Gender and Sexuality

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Laverne Cox’s June 2014 cover story in Time magazine was a very big deal for the transgender community. There she is on the cover in the checkout aisle at the grocery store: in a blue dress, eyes locked to the camera, looking slightly downwards, walking forward. If you study gender, sexuality, and the media, it is a good moment for thinking about the importance of visibility.

It’s not the only recent example of representations of gender and sexuality making headline news, however. A few weeks ago, the twittersphere erupted when University of Missouri linebacker Michael Sam, upon learning that the St. Louis Rams drafted him, kissed his boyfriend in celebration. Broadcast on ESPN, it was seen as controversial by some people, and a watershed moment for others.

Why was it controversial? A friend told me that the only man-on-man kiss most American men are comfortable with is when it is followed by Al Pacino saying, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.” That’s a The Godfather II joke/reference, but what he was saying was that context matters: a Mafioso kiss of death between family members might be seen as powerful and acceptable, a football player joyously kissing his boyfriend is seen as neither by those same people.

Compare also with the lack of a fuss over Cam and Mitch getting married on ABC’s Modern Family, even though it was on 9pm on Wednesday night. (Well, Republican First Lady-hopeful Ann Romney did say that it was her favorite show.) But ESPN on a sunny Saturday afternoon isn’t Wednesday primetime TV. When Michael Sam was chosen in the last round of the draft—and really, only diehard football fans are still watching at that point—it was met with some digital groans from fans and athletes alike. A Miami Dolphins player, for example, was fined and suspended for tweeting ”OMG” and ”Horrible” after the event.

The controversy over Sam’s sexual orientation is what is truly controversial. When he announced that he was gay a few months prior to the draft, many questioned whether or not the NFL would welcome him. It sparked a lot of conversation, along with a takedown of those who were upset by Dallas sportscaster Dale Hansen, who highlighted the hypocrisy of being upset at Sam but not at the other activities of other NFL football players:

You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs, pulling her hair out by the roots? You're the fourth guy taken in the NFL draft… You kill people while driving drunk? That guy’s welcome. Players caught in hotel rooms with illegal drugs and prostitutes? We know they’re welcome. Players accused of rape and pay the woman to go away? You lie to police trying to cover up a murder? We’re comfortable with that. You love another man? Well, now you’ve gone too far!

While epic, Hansen simply doesn’t go far enough here. He doesn’t think about why these activities are begrudgingly tolerated by the NFL and non-controversial by sports fans. Quite simply, these actions can be situated as extensions of conventional hegemonic masculinity.

This is to say that, within the context of expected heterosexual male action, particularly of athletes, these activities are extreme extensions of what is within the spectrum of masculine traits. When Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens dragged his fiancée whom he knocked unconscious by her hair, Darryl Washington of the Arizona Cardinals assaulted his ex-wife and child, and Quinton Groves of the Cleveland Browns was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, all three were expressing male domination over women. When Aldon Smith of the San Francisco 49ers was arrested on three felony counts of illegal possession of assault weapons, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, New York Jets running back Mike Goodson, and Indianapolis Colts safety Joe Lefeged were are all arrested on gun charges, each was adopting a violent and powerful personae. When Donté Stallworth of the Cleveland Browns was charged with manslaughter while driving under the influence, when Michael Vick (currently with the New York Jets) ran a “cruel and inhumane” dogfighting ring, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver was arrested for a felony hit-and-run (who actually made some anti-gay comments a few years prior), when former Dolphins player Ritchie Incognito bullied a teammate, and when too many players to list were caught driving while intoxicated all were all being naturally aggressive and rambunctious.  

These activities might all be beyond the pale to the average sports fan, and most of these men were punished or sanctioned in some fashion. But all of these activities fit within certain expectations of masculinity.

And so, presentations, expectations, interpretations, and contexts matter. Although he was quite critical of Sam’s kiss as being “selfish,” I will agree with Fox News’ Rick Sanchez when he says it was “an affront to the NFL culture.” When you think about the above list of aggressive and violent actions (an economist notes that the arrest rate for NFL players is actually lower when compared with men of the same age), it seems like the NFL culture could use a little intervention, right?

Howard Becker’s Telling About Society is a fantastic start to thinking about all our forms of representation. Drawing from a discussion on statistical tables, maps, photography and text, he explains our “representations of society” in terms of users and makers, facts and interpretations (which are not the same thing). Representations of society, for Becker, arise from an organizational context that might have to do with facts and are often open to interpretations (e.g., Hansen or Sanchez’s commentaries).

Likewise, in 2010 there was a really great article in Sociological Images, which discusses how the Florida Family Policy Council circulated an image of a lesbian couple who wanted to adopt a child, to alert their members of a recent judge’s ruling: the FFPC used a image of a different, theoretically more scary-looking, couple. Stereotypes abound. For what it’s worth, the group says that image on the right (image here) was of another couple also seeking adoption and that they’re sorry for the mix up. One should question who made these images, yes? One should also wonder what negative consequences could there be from the image of a gay football player?

When the latest Gallup poll shows that support for same-sex marriage (or as it is increasingly called through the U.S.: just plain marriage) has never been higher, visibility of diverse same-sex relationships is of critical value. In truth, visibility matters for all underrepresented groups. 

So, when an actress becomes an advocate for transgender rights and is able to harness some of her fame, or when a man comes out as gay and take arguably his biggest opportunity to express joy and love to the world, well, these things matter for everyone’s understanding of sexuality and gender. In the context of a sometimes aggressive and toxic sports culture and greater awareness of the issue of transgender rights, they are even more important.


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