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Odell Beckham Jr. and the dangers of heteronormativity in the NFL

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Odell Beckham Jr. doesn't march to the same beat as so many self-declared "masculine" NFL players. That has put a target on his back, reflecting the deeper gender and heteronormativity issues entrenched in football.

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Football is the embodiment of masculinity. The sport's violence is legendary, and the dramatic, physical clashes that take place on the gridiron every week is what draws in hundreds of millions of viewers each season.

The violence that shapes the game of football does not stop at the physical level. Football players are brought up to think and act a certain way, often laughing in the face of self-preservation. There is a lack of regard for self and other that shapes the game. With that, a certain type of person is expected from players, coaches and fans alike.

That persona has to be quintessentially male: strong-willed, violent, not giving in to physical or emotional pain in the name of "teamwork" or the game. Of course, this is just a microcosm of expectations of men in society, but football and its players often reaffirm many people's ideal of what a man should be.

This is violence and it must stop.

This year has seen the continued, meteoric rise of New York Giants superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. The former LSU player is averaging almost 100 yards and a touchdown every game he has played in the NFL. The start of his career has been downright legendary.

With his stardom, a microscope has been put on his masculinity, and thus his sexuality.

Beckham has gained a reputation as a chippy player, taking shots at defensive backs and complaining when they hit back. He has gotten labeled as "soft" because of how he deals with defensive players.

On top of that, Beckham dances. That's it. He loves to dance. Beckham is dancing after touchdowns, he is dancing after conversions, he is dancing on the sidelines, and he is dancing in his free time. The guy just freaking loves to dance. His behavior has garnered a lot of negative attention, and many do not see him as being a "real man."

Any time Beckham enters the news, Twitter erupts with homophobic remarks about how he composes himself. Even worse, that isn't contained online among disgusting fans hiding behind their computers: It is happening on the field.

After the 60-minute sparring session between Beckham and Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, the Giants adamantly insisted that the Panthers were hurling a bevy of homophobic slurs at Beckham. Beckham was flustered with the vitriol being pointed at him and reacted with physical violence.

Was Beckham wrong in fighting with Norman, including a particular instance where he targeted Norman's head? Absolutely. His violent reaction to the taunting reinforces the dangers of heteronormativity that are so present in the sport.

When faced with questions about the use of these slurs, the common reaction from coaches, players, fans and analysts alike are that it "is just a part of the game." It is often said that the words are empty and meaningless. The truth is, that is a massive lie that straight men will tell themselves in order to avoid their own insecurities with behavior that is different to them.

Using slurs reflects an inner hatred that makes a person feel it is OK to use the words in any setting. It does not matter if it is the N-word or the F-word, it is a symbol of hate. A heterosexual person using that word, regardless of how or towards whom, is hateful and violent and needs to be stopped.

Even more problematic than the use of the words itself is what they imply. The only person who has agency over Beckham's sexuality is Beckham himself. However, the interpolation of people in the surrounding culture has made assumptions about him because he does not fit into the heteronormal behavior that shapes American culture.

The assumptions being made on a regular basis, including the slurs being used against Beckham, appropriate a line of thinking that tells people what a man should be and how they should act. It damns a perceivably flamboyant behavior and tells a culture that this difference in male behavior is not OK and deserves violence.

Sports, and entertainment in general, are a mirror in which society chooses to escape. Even though it may seem like something totally separate from the society in which they interact, it is that society that shapes what they are seeing. Symbiotically, what they see will appropriate what they do and how they act.

Sports have always been a means in which to reinforce gender binaries: That is, women behave "like women" and men behave "like men." Even in 2015, football is still informing society of what the "ideal man" should be.

However, it is important to recognize this influence for its positive potential. Sports can reshape our understanding of gender and sexuality rather than reinforce archaic and violent binaries. That exists at a micro level, where the Giants have partnered with an organization supporting LGBTQ youth (You Can Play), and Eagles' linebacker Connor Barwin is outspoken on the subject of equality across sexuality.

Still, there needs to be a greater effort in changing the culture in the NFL and how it interacts with difference. As I said earlier, a lot of the issues that manifest themselves in the league were taught at a young age. Even so, perpetuating a positive message on gender and sexuality through the league can give society a new mirror to look into. Through that, even the smallest individual victories are steps towards a more accepting future.

Ben Natan is a student at NYU and regular blogger for SBNation's Bleeding Green Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @BGNatan.