Together, in a dark room, two men approach each other. In a moment, they lunge to embrace. They grope and pant, their tight clothing clinging to every muscular flex and ripple. Their positions switch with each instant, one man on top of the other, until finally one is subdued, lying, breathless.
This, my friends, is a wrestling match. The Olympic Greeks did it naked. So it seems, athletics have “always been a little gay.”
As I’ve continued my studies into the masculinity of American sport (of which this will be my last blog post) I’ve become interested less in the political implications of masculinity and more in the social. Brian Pronger writes in his book The Arena of Masculinity about how, for young men, “sport is an initiation into manhood, a forum in which they can realize their place in the orthodoxy of gender culture” focused on “violence, struggle and aesthetics” (19). How is it that that orthodoxy has come to symbolize heteronormativity?
Pronger argues that athletics are an arena in which men show physical affection towards each other in ways they would never do on the street, under the assumption that none of the participants is actually homosexual. He writes, “It’s ironic that while sport is traditionally a sign of orthodox masculinity for men, emphasizing the conventional masculine values of power, muscular strength, competition and so on, it is also a world that celebrates affinity among men, and therefore, paradoxical experience” (177). It appears that the field is the only place in which men can show any signs of physical affection towards one another, whether genuine or not.
And isn’t it true? As an outside eye into men’s athletics, I can’t help but notice how spandex clad football players aren’t afraid to slap each other’s butts on the field, but are hard pressed to offer a hug on the street. Or how the prototypical wrestler will seldom offer more than a handshake to his teammates after hours of rolling around the floor together.
Because, as Pronger puts it, “in sports, heterosexuality and orthodox masculinity are not only assumed, they are expected,” how does the picture change when athletes are homosexual? How does our culture react to a disruption in the heteronormative orthodoxy, especially when that tradition has allowed for certain interactions on field?
As of late, these questions have come into practice in professional sports both in the US and abroad. A year ago, Jason Collins became the first NBA player, and professional athlete of any major American sport, to come out as gay, which caused a media field day, sensationalizing the news and raising discussion from traditional and progressive perspectives. (For those of you who haven’t heard of Collins, I’ll hold up the rock you’ve been living under while you read this and for extra credit, this).
After his announcement, Collins survived a Twitter firestorm which proved that while many agree that it shouldn’t, our culture believes that sexuality in sport still matters. While the positive tweets were uplifting, encouraging and progressive, the negative ones received much more attention, particularly those of NFL player Mike Wallace (who later apologized for his reaction). In general, however, the majority of negative tweets were generated by fans, while those that were encouraging came from within the industry. Such figures go on to prove that the homophobic problem in sport has little to do with sport itself, and everything to do with our culture. Some of those negative tweets referred to Collin’s sexuality as an explanation for not being a great player. It appears that when male athletes are openly gay, they are guilty until proven innocent in terms of athletic ability.
Pronger writes that “although it is not yet usual for gay men to be known in athletic settings, such openness is now possible for some” (261). One such arena in which men are simultaneously assumed to have and criticized for homosexual leanings is figure skating. Johnny Weir exudes antidoxy. His elaborate routines and grand personality have caught him a lot of slack, and his performances demand nothing more than perfection to quiet his critics. In the below video, the announcer comments on the nature of Weir’s elaborations, alluding to the idea that they could affect how seriously he takes his athletics. Weir answers with an incredible performance. You may note, the announcer does not have much to say from the start of the music:
As Collins and Weir prove, the tenets of athletic tradition are being broken down, but more remain. Pronger writes, “Living by orthodox standards is not only fruitless but also inauthentic…it is no longer necessary to pretend to be straight if you want to be athletic” (269). The international uprising against the Russian anti-homosexual propaganda laws proved that understanding to be universal. President Obama sent Billy Jean King and Caitlin Cahow to represent him at the opening ceremonies while Canada and Norway created commercials like this:
However, to the best of my knowledge, the US did not produce media like Canada and Norway. The President did not send any openly gay male athletes, and (as proven by the difficulty I met in finding literature on homosexual male athletes amongst the piles of writing on homosexual female athletes) little representation appeared in the name of gay athletes in ‘masculine’ sports such as hockey or Alpine racing.
Pronger writes, “Most athletic activities…have little or no intrinsic connection with orthodox masculinity,” which leaves such connections to be merely societal constructs (27). It seems that, in the American culture, sports still represent a heteronormative masculine ideal, in which men may act in certain ways under the assumption that no homosexual implications may be drawn. The wider recognition, and further, acceptance of gay athletes into that culture will break down the barriers created by the jock’s paradox and create an athletic society that does what it was intended to: focus on the game.
Pronger, Brian. The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality, and the Meaning of Sex. New York. St. Martin’s. 1990. Print.