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Former college football linebackers tell of atmosphere of homophobia while playing

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Inside Higher Education has a comprehensive look at a research study focusing on seven former college football linebackers, all of whom identify as "non-straight," and how awful their experiences were while playing.

The study by Lawrence J. Mrozek and Elizabeth Burns found:

When players were found out, they could become targets. One former student who witnessed a couple of people being outed said that when his team found out a player was gay, “they became like a pariah; they had to be gotten rid of.”

In an interview with Mrozek, he described how this drove one player to self-destruction. “Other members of the team found out, and what they basically did, they just started beating the crap out of him whenever they could catch him alone,” he said. “He was so upset about it he ended up – he was actually found somewhere outside of town – because he didn’t want to play football and he didn’t want to tell his parents and, I know it was deliberate…. He mangled up his legs so that he couldn’t play.”

Six of the seven played on BCS-level teams within the past 15 years. All of them asked for anonymity since they still did not want their former teammates to know they were gay. Mrozek's conclusion is that while attitudes have changed for the better for gays in sports, he said that was not true for football.

His views are rebutted by Eric Anderson, a longtime friend of Outsports, who has done groundbreaking research into gay males in sports. Anderson makes the point that attitudes have changed very quickly in a short time span. For example:

Anderson compared the experiences of openly gay college and high school athletes who came out between 2000 and 2002, which he had gathered for a previous study in 2002, to the experiences of those who came out between 2008 and 2010. (The athletes, who were all male, played in a variety of sports, including football, hockey and wrestling.) He found that the latter group was much more well-received than the former; none of the 26 athletes he interviewed most recently had "any substantial difficulties on their teams" after coming out as gay, Anderson wrote. "Much of the turmoil and anxiety that I found with the 2002 athletes is absent from the 2010 men's narratives," he wrote.

I think Anderson is right. Times have changed and the culture in sports has gotten better. Cyd and I know of one Division I college football player who is out to his teammates and is accepted. A 2009 ESPN poll found half those college football players surveyed say they have a gay teammate (though it did not talk about acceptance). I would be curious to know whether the linebackers who are younger had experiences any less negative than those who played 15 years ago.

There are still no publicly gay college football players (or basketball or baseball for that matter), so homophobia still has its grip on those sports. These "major sports," where there is more money and public attention, are still seen as places where it's better to fit in and stay in the closet.

If anyone reading this played sports in college, I would love to read your comments on what that was like and whether you ever came out while playing or after graduating.