I am worried about Odell Beckham. The Giant’s Wide Receiver is unstoppable on the field, but I think something is really wrong. After he scored a touchdown against the Ravens on Sunday, he ran over to the kicking net and put his head through it.
Perhaps there is a reason for his frustration. Since last year, there have been attempts to “out” Odell as gay. The hyper-masculine NFL is not an easy organization to work for (unless you are Tom Brady, quick to assemble high-priced legal teams to fight his battles). Odell, in contrast, is a 23-year old, African-American male, subject to stereotyping and public speculation about his sexual orientation.
The outing attempts are a form of homophobia that the NFL and other sports organizations are no strangers to. Groups like Athlete’s Ally have worked diligently to end homophobia in sports, but it exists and it can be debilitating to the players affected by it.
In 2013 the NFL’s checkered past with confronting homophobia was on full display when San Francisco 49’ers Cornerback, Chris Culliver, said he would refuse to play with any players who were openly gay. Backlash from LGBTQ organizations and other players ensued. Sorries were said and the issue was swept under the rug of the NFL.
But sorries are not enough. The players brave enough to speak out about the hostile environment openly gay players face paint a picture of fear and intimidation in locker rooms. Former player, Shannon Sharpe, said this about former NFL defensive lineman, Esera Tuaolo, who came out as gay in 2005: “If Tuaolo was found out on a Monday, he would not have made it to the game on Sunday. He would have been eaten alive and he would have been hated for it.”
Today the NFL has formal anti-discrimination clauses in place. But to gauge the true climate for openly gay players in the NFL, look no further than Michael Sam. In 2014 he was drafted to the Rams, but later cut. He briefly played on the Cowboys practice squad and never returned to the NFL. Perhaps being gay in the NFL is career suicide?
Like other employers, the NFL is prohibited from asking players about their sexual orientation. But many say it happens. The Guardian reports that Atlanta Falcons Assistant Coach, Marquand Manuel, asked former Ohio State Cornerback, Eli Apple, if he was gay during the draft. It is a question that would make someone gay or straight uncomfortable because 1.) it is illegal and 2.) it is inappropriate. The NFL is hardly setting a tone for inclusiveness.
But the NFL can get away with it, because fans will watch no matter what. There is a disconnect between how the public experiences football and how the players do. For spectators, football is just fun. NFL players are modern-day gladiators. The public likes the blood sport aspect of it. But for players, it is their economic livelihood. Short, injury-plagued careers are the norm. Only half of the players have college degrees, limiting non-football related employment should they experience a career-ending injury or a damaging incident to their reputation. Expendability is the culture.
For young players like Odell, the pressure is enormous. Many fall victim to problems like mismanagement, addiction, and intimate partner violence. Add being the subject of “outing” campaigns to the list and it is downright toxic.