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Pro Sports Locker Rooms Aren’t Homophobic, They’re Just Too Pro-Straight

All that talk about naked women means gay men still don’t feel at home, says Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of Outsports

“Social change happens when people don’t give a fuck,” says Cyd Zeigler. By that measure, Zeigler, co-founder of the website Outsports and author of the upcoming book Fair Play, gives zero fucks. A brilliant contrarian, he says what he thinks, which generally isn’t what you’d guess and which has helped push forward the acceptance of gay athletes throughout the sports world ever since Outsports started in 1999.

While the four main sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL) have yet to have a star gay athlete assigned to an active roster, Zeigler thinks that’s more a testament to overt heterosexism than it is to homophobia—i.e., the constant locker-room talk about women makes it an uncomfortable place for gay men to be. In fact, Zeigler argues that professional sports are not homophobic institutions at all, and that while front offices may be reluctant to draft a gay player, the athletes themselves aren’t homophobic.

In the latest episode of the MEL Interview podcast, Zeigler and staff writer John McDermott debate this distinction, discuss why Michael Sam’s not playing in the NFL is a direct result of homophobia and talk about why Zeigler is disappointed in Dan Savage’s new sitcom The Real O’Neals.

Read an edited excerpt from the interview below, or listen to the full recording at the SoundCloud embed above.

Why don’t you think sports like baseball, football, basketball and hockey are homophobic?
We focus so much on homophobia in locker room sports. But that’s not it. I don’t hear anything about homophobia. All I hear is the overt heterosexism in sports and everything around sports. That’s actually the biggest hurdle that gay athletes face. It’s not the homophobia but the constant heterosexism. The constant talk about women and sex with women. It dominates locker room culture. It’s not that these sports are anti-gay, it’s that they’re so pro-straight.

But prior to the NFL draft, it came out that a coach from the Atlanta Falcons had asked a draftee about his sexual orientation as if that would somehow affect his draft stock or the team’s perception of him as a player. So it would seem like there’s more homophobia there than you’re letting on — at least within the NFL.
Even within that question, you’ve put a value of homophobia on the question that the coach was asking. I just don’t think that somebody asking someone else if they’re gay is a bad thing.

Why is it germane at all?
You’re taking his actions and putting homophobia on it. And I don’t. I speculate about people’s sexuality all the time. I don’t think that being gay is bad.

I’m not saying it is.
But you are.

You’re assuming that the genesis of his actions is homophobia. Where do you get that from?

Those interviews are meant to suss out any potential issues that may arise from drafting this player so they ask very pointed questions. They’re not necessarily germane at all to their athletic ability, so why else would he ask it if it wasn’t for the organization being concerned about a possible PR debacle of drafting a gay player?
These interviews, the Wonderlic Test and the NFL Combine itself are so overblown by decision makers in the NFL. One of the things these coaches want to do is get cute. They want to trip you up. They want to see how you’re going to perform under pressure. They’ll ask you questions about women, drugs, sex, race, religion and everything else. Just to see how you’ll react. The Falcons probably think asking a question about whether a player liked men was this coach’s dumb choice to see how the player would react. So I think the assumption that the root of it was homophobia continues a false narrative that the root of sports is homophobic.

You do believe, however, that there’s a rift between acceptance among players and acceptance in the front office. Can you elaborate on that?Michael Sam is the ultimate example. Michael Sam wasn’t drafted until the seventh round, and after he was cut, nobody wanted him. I was talking to many people in and around the NFL at the time. He was slated for the third round by CBS Sports before he came out. The day he came out, they dropped him to the seventh round.

If you stack up all the people who had the same college stats or the same NFL preseason stats, he’s the only one who didn’t make an active roster that year. So there’s only one thing you can point to — the one thing that makes him different from everybody else is he’s gay.

How do you square that with your opinion that it’s a false narrative that the root of sports are homophobic?
There was a great study on fans about 10 years ago. It asked fans if they would accept a gay player on their favorite team. Eighty percent said yes. The next question was would the guy sitting next to you in the arena be okay with it. Eighty percent said no. People have moved past this issue, but they assume everybody else hasn’t. That’s the problem with the guys in suits, working in NFL front offices. They work 18-hour days, 30 days a month, 12 months a year. They’re not thinking about this stuff; they’re just thinking about old stereotypes about athletes and fans.

If a player can come in and distract the team or undermine your leadership because he smokes pot or is gay, what does it say about your leadership? I look at a guy like Bill Belichick, who’s brought in Randy Moss and Chad Johnson, and through his leadership, he’s made them model citizens. What does it say about the other coaches who avoid these people? What does it say about their leadership? I think most coaches in the NFL need to go to some leadership school if they can’t handle a gay guy in the locker room.

How do you think the media and pop culture depicts gay men and their relationship with sports?
I appreciate Dan Savage’s aggressive nature on fighting homophobia. But his ABC show The Real O’Neals has one of the few out gay characters on TV, who, of course, hates sports. Hollywood, despite all of the wonderful inclusion we talk about, still puts out these stereotypical portrayals of gay men, and I’m not sure that will ever change.

Check out the rest of our chat with Zeigler on The MEL Interview:

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