Men’s team sports have traditionally been a social institution aimed at defining certain forms of masculinity as acceptable.
On the flip side, they have simultaneously denigrated other — often posited as weaker — forms of masculinity. Boys and men who participate in competitive sports, and particularly team sports, have long been expected to exhibit and value traditional notions of masculinity.
Central to this has been the use of homophobia, which research shows pervaded men’s team sports to a high degree in the 1980s, when researchers first began writing about the topic. In fact, in the first-ever investigation, by Brian Pronger in 1990, not a single openly gay male team sport athlete could be located who, and he found few to interview who were closeted. Very few gay and bisexual athletes came out of the closet at the time, at any level of play.
I was one who did.
In 1993, I came out (as far as I know) as America’s first publicly out gay high school coach. I was coaching in Orange County, Calif., a very conservative area at the time. My experience was rather mixed. I maintained strong support from the athletes I coached, but symbolic and actualized violence from others, mostly the football team. I chronicled my journey in my book, Trailblazing: The True Story of America’s First Openly Gay Track Coach.
Those experiences lead me to a PhD on the topic, and in 2002 I published the first-ever research on the experiences of 26 openly gay athletes from a variety of team and individual sports. Findings showed a crack in the homophobic sporting culture.
Athletes at this time were accepted, mostly because they were all amongst the best athletes on their teams. Still, there was no physical violence, and they reported a great deal of outward support.
This is not altogether unsurprising, as research shows that America has gone through a liberalizing of attitudes toward gay men, starting in about 1993 and improving, rapidly, year on year.
So, by the time I replicated this study with a different 26 men just nine years later, I found that they were uniformly welcomed and supported, but that now they were not all superstar athletes on their teams. It seemed just ordinary gay men could play with acceptance.
My research was met with skepticism by those who made outdated assumptions that team sports continue to act as a bastion of homophobia.
The question I asked them: ‘Beyond anecdote, where is your evidence ?’ I never got any. I often heard stories of an athlete being beaten up, only to discover that they were recycling my story from 18 years earlier!
Since my foundational studies, I have carried out many more studies with similar results demonstrating widespread acceptance across various levels of sports, including players who were on the cusp of playing for a Premiership Football Team in the UK.
I even turned my attention to the lives of heterosexual male athletes and their attitudes toward gay men in sport. Using data from college football players in the American South, I showed about equal acceptance of gay men as in society at large. Homophobes were not somehow gravitating toward football, and the sport’s culture wasn’t making them more homophobic.
I then moved to the U.K. Consequently, I used a longitudinal study to show, and have another under review, the attitudes of incoming college/university student-athletes in the U.K. In these studies we see that the level of homophobia held by these heterosexual male athletes, as well as by heterosexual women toward lesbian athletes, is lower than the attitudes of the general population more broadly.
In fact, I stopped researching incoming students after 13 years because there was simply no change in the dynamic: Every year I found that homophobia among 18-year-old athletes is far less than exists within the British Population at large. This is largely attributable to youth being gay friendly, with some older adults being less so.
Dozens of studies later, I have definitively shown that across the U.K., and even in the U.S., heterosexual men are valuing a softer form of masculinity. I have even showed varying rates of heterosexual men kissing one another, among 11 universities in the United States, and at universities in Australia and the UK. The very fear of even being perceived to be gay — this softer form of masculinity — is evaporating.
In my 2014 book, 21st Century Jocks, I hypothesized that the homophobic sporting masculinity of the 20th century laid the seeds for its destruction in the 21st. I showed that emotional care-taking and tactility (kissing, cuddling and loving) were able to take place among team sport athletes (more so in the UK than US) because they had heterosexual “capital” as team sport athletes.
Even more, as these athletes were affectionate with one another in pubs and clubs, it gave permission for non-athletes to do the same.
As sporting cultures continue to embrace social change, there has been a significant increase in elite-level lesbian, gay, and bisexual athletes who have publicly come out of the closet.
Rather than rejection and ostracism from sport—as has historically been the case—these athletes have been embraced, celebrated, and propelled to stardom as symbols of sport’s ongoing transformation towards inclusion.
I am not saying that there is no homophobia in sport. Decreasing homophobia is an uneven social movement that varies by geographical and demographic difference.
However, it is no longer valid to argue that team sports are bastions of homophobic men, and certainly not compared to the general population. Such an assertion would be to judge them without evidence, or to extrapolate from one to the whole. This is the very nature of prejudice.
Dr. Eric Anderson is a Professor of Sport, Health and Social Sciences at the University of Winchester, England. He holds degrees in health, psychology and sociology and has published 19 books and 75 peer-reviewed scientific papers. His research is regularly featured in international television, print and digital media. You can learn more about him and his work on his website, or on Twitter @EricAndersPhD.
Story editor: Cyd Zeigler