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Gridiron Life: Michael Sam and Macho Football Culture

Critics who worried Michael Sam would be a distraction need to take a closer look at what heterosexual football culture has become.

Michael Sam

So imagine yourself in this scene that happened in a football locker room recently: you are in your first season with the team, a rookie. You are minding your own business, getting ready to take a shower. Suddenly, the team veterans are hootin’ and hollerin’ into the locker room. Their screams grow louder and louder, closer and closer. Like a wild stampede, they collectively run after you. They get a hold of you and team up to pin you to the ground, holding on to your limbs with all their might. You struggle and wrestle, but there’s too many of them to fight. In the meanwhile, they’re looking up and cheering on a player to “take that ass!”

Turns out, Tony Dungy was correct when he made a public assessment on openly-gay player, Michael Sam:

I wouldn’t have taken him. Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. […] It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.

This is probably what Dungy meant when he said “things will happen.” Because as we saw in that first scenario, a football locker room is a very strange place. It definitely got a bit crazy at Sayreville War Memorial High School this season. Allegedly, seven varsity players are being charged with sexual assault and other crimes committed on their younger teammates. The older players justified it as a hazing ritual; a welcoming to the team of sorts. The school’s superintendent thought otherwise and decided to cancel the team’s season.

As prosecutors look through the evidence and try to figure out how to approach their case, the big shocker in all of this is that the older, varsity players, as they pinned the freshman players down (allegedly, four total victims), punching and kicking them while doing so, one of the players would stick a finger up the players’ anus.

Now, it is very important to know that the alleged victims were still in their uniform when all of this supposedly happened. And it is worth reiterating that this is supposed to be an organic, team-building exercise. Apparently, this practice is so common, per the New York Times, that players had a name for the ritual: “ass taking.”

Perhaps to civilians like you and me, this is strange, lewd behavior, but at the same time, this is football! Not just any football, it’s American football. Not the European sport for pansies and wussies, but the gridiron reserved for real men. Men manly enough to take another man’s manhood by doing manly things…like trying to grab another player’s “ass,” while other teammates pin the unsuspecting player to the floor. In football, this is the most hetero thing to do with your bros.

This is why hazing rituals like these are imperative to a team’s morale, the argument goes. Outsiders like you and me will never understand what it’s like to be inside a football locker room. It’s just part of the culture. However, Mike Kelly of northjersey.com, would say that he’s seen better team-building rituals. Compiling a list of impressive, hazing rituals, Kelly reminds us that what happened at Sayreville is not an isolated incident. Here’s a couple of examples:

  • The 1989 Lyndhurst (NJ) football team, away at summer camp in Pennsylvania, allegedly watched as a few older players forced down one of the younger players and had another younger player touch him in a sexual manner. Kelly pointed out that “No player attempted to step in and stop what was happening, police say.”
  • At Holmdel High School (NJ), upper classmen forced younger players to play a game of “naked Twister.”

And probably the most disgusting example you and I will ever read, Kelly recounts the following, 1989 incident at Glen Ridge:

…five players who were over 18 years old were arrested on a variety of charges, including aggravated sexual assault with a broomstick and a baseball bat on a mentally handicapped girl who was lured into the basement of a home with a promise that one player would take her on a date.

These players were self-entitled, narcissistic psychopaths because of football culture. The same football culture that probably had Aaron Hernandez feel like he was above the law and could get away with murder. The same football culture that gave the National Football League a “black eye” as they looked like an incompetent organization when it came to domestic violence incidences involving Ray RiceGreg HardyRay McDonald, and Adrian Peterson (alleged child abuse).

But all summer long, after Sam became the first openly-gay player to be selected in the NFL draft, the cascade from anti-gay groups, homophobic football “experts,” players, and fans alike regarding Sam’s sexual preference were rampant. But there was Sam, the player trying his best to not be a “distraction” and doing his best to make the final opening day roster for the St. Louis Rams.

Sam even postponed a reality TV show through the Oprah Winfrey Network in order to show the world how dedicated he was to football. Yet a player like Brandon Marshall gets to appear on national television every week and is not considered a distraction to the team (yet). Marshall gets to hold random press conferences on the occasion he’s in the mood to talk to the media and just ramble on listlessly until he runs out of things to say. Somehow, that’s not considered a distraction either.

There was even a national discussion about Sam’s shower habits in the Rams’ locker room. Did he shower alone? Did he shower with teammates? Was he looking at other teammates while he was in the shower? Did teammates look back at him with rage and anger? Or did they smile and wink back at him? Did he use shampoo and conditioner? Did his teammates use soap-on-a-rope? Whatever the case was, we did not hear of any hazing rituals in the shower so it’s safe to say that Sam was not worthy enough to be a victim participant in the team-building exercises that occur inside the team’s locker room. That is why he had to be cut from the Rams. He wasn’t one of the boys. He just wasn’t gay enough.

Luckily, Sam was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys, a team so desperate for any kind of defensive help, they were more than happy to pick up Sam. The defensive lineman would not be much of a distraction in Dallas because owner Jerry Jones provides all the distractions the team can handle. And if any team is used to any off-the-wall hijinks in the locker room, it’s the Cowboys. This is the same team that employed Charles Haley. The notorious defensive lineman was infamous for flopping his penis around the locker room, showing it off to teammates, as he would:

…stroke it inches from another player’s face; the players tried to laugh it off but Haley was relentless. He would masturbate during meetings, all the while trash-talking other player’s wives.

Somehow, that did not distract the Cowboys from winning all those Super Bowls in the 1990s. But fans and some members of the media alike insisted that having an openly-gay player on the squad would be a distraction. The straight players simply would not have the freedom and comfort to perform gay acts with each other while an actual gay player was looking on.

All kidding aside, Sam’s biggest obstacle was not his sexual orientation. The biggest hurdle that Sam had to face as he fought for his NFL life was the same guy that was trying to coach him up: Rod Marinelli. Coming into the 2014 season, the Cowboys were supposed to have one of the worst (if not the absolute worst) defenses in the league. Signing Sam to the practice squad was a smart, calculated risk. But if you know Marinelli just simply because of his 0-16 season with the Detroit Lions, then you are a very misinformed football fan. All he does is coach. Marinelli has turned a joke of a defense into one of the toughest to score against, currently averaging 21 points allowed per game, good enough for ninth in the league.

Marinelli is the type of coach that turns underachievers into NFL starters; the type of defensive-minded coach that Michael Sam needed to jump-start his career. Unfortunately for Sam, other Cowboys’ defensive players received the same benefits of Marinelli and his defensive staff. Sam was once again the odd man out. On Tuesday, the Cowboys cut the rookie. Sam is once again jobless and his future in the NFL looks murky at best.

Nevertheless, in a year where football has received a lot of negative attention, Michael Sam proved that a gay player can be on an NFL roster and not be a distraction to the team. After all, the Cowboys are looking like legit champion contenders at 6-1. Furthermore, if history has showed us anything, it’s that straight football players have a strange way of showing off their masculinity and their team-building rituals are questionable at best. If I’m Michael Sam, I wouldn’t blame him for balking at some of the hazing rituals that require sexual contact with other teammates.

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