IU expert on sport and masculinity says Michael Sam case challenges 'old school' norms

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Over the weekend, college football player Michael Sam revealed in an interview with The New York Times that he was gay. The defensive end who just concluded an all-American career for the University of Missouri is projected as a probable pick in the National Football League draft in May. If he does make an NFL team, he would be the first active openly gay player in any male professional sports league (NBA player Jason Collins announced he was gay after last year’s season but has not been signed to play since).

Jesse Steinfeldt, a sport psychologist and associate professor of counseling and educational psychology at the Indiana University School of Education, has extensively researched gender roles and masculinity in sports. 

He recently wrote a chapter on masculinities in sport that will appear in the upcoming book “Handbook of Men and Masculinities,” co-edited by IU School of Education associate professor Y. Joel Wong and Stephen Wester of the University of Milwaukee. Additionally, he has experience as a former three-sport star athlete, playing football, baseball and basketball at Yale and playing all three as a professional in Europe. He has also written and presented several studies on the impact of Native American mascots in sports.

Steinfeldt offers some thoughts on the Sam revelation and its implications. Reporters who want to follow up with Steinfeldt may contact him directly at 812-856-8331 or jesstein@indiana.edu.

“It took a lot of courage for Michael Sam to come out, especially because football still endorses practices of oppressiveness and intolerance toward gay men, effeminate men and anyone else who isn’t considered a ‘real man,’” Steinfeldt said. “It is my hope that Michael Sam will encourage other gay athletes to come out and be true to themselves.

“Contact sports like football are considered to be domains where traditional ‘old school’ norms of masculinity exist and thrive. Coaches enforce these masculine norms of toughness and aggressiveness, which are often thought to be at odds with stereotypic misperceptions of gay men,” he added. “But what better way to smash these stereotypes than having a tough, athletic 255-pound gay man tackling quarterbacks and punishing ball carriers on Sundays?”

“Because football is societally perceived as the ultimate form of toughness and manliness, it may be difficult for people to reconcile this perception with their limited misperceptions of who gay men really are. Some football players, coaches and administrators will be complicit in this process because football still represents a place where the derision and exclusion of gay men is allowed and even encouraged. But Michael Sam is an important piece in deconstructing this dynamic. We have recently seen more public examples of coaches being held accountable for behavior that serves to strengthen negative beliefs about gay men.”