NFL working toward inclusiveness

Rough, tumble and even bloody, professional football is rarely seen  as a bastion of progressive politics.  However, a proposed rule to penalize  racist and homophobic slurs in the  National Football League (NFL) and  the upcoming debut of the first female permanent referee to officiate professional games signal a cultural shift in the league.

Football has never been a  gentleman’s game, but a proposed NFL  rule may soon make the game, if not a  bit gentler, then at least a little nicer.  The NFL is proposing a fifteen-yard penalty to be levied against the team of  a player caught using derogatory racial  or homophobic slurs during a game. If  the same player breaks this rule twice in  the same game, he will face ejection for  the remainder of the game.

The rule comes on the heels of  Michael Sam’s recent announcement that he is gay. If Sam is drafted onto an  NFL team this April, he will become the  first openly gay player in NFL history.  Professor of English Miriam  Wallace has been watching the Sam story with interest and said that the young defensive end from University of  Missouri is likely to open the doors for  other LGBTQ players.

“The question is whether he is  going to be a top pick or if teams are  now going to be afraid to pick him,”  Wallace said.

While playing defensive end at  the University of Missouri, Sam was  an all-American player and won the  Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year award.

“It’s really important that we  have someone who is an active player  and a topic pick and a really admired  athlete who says this is who I am and  this is one piece of who I am,” Wallace  added.

After a mediocre performance at   where draftees are run through a  gauntlet of physical drills and team  interviews, Sam is now projected to be  picked up in the third or fourth round.

While the proposed penalty for racist and homophobic slurs was not spurred  by Sam’s announcement, it does reflect  an increasing concern in front offices  and media rooms that the NFL must do more to combat violence and bullying in the locker room and on the field.

Wallace said that Sam’s story  proves that coming out is still an  important means of encouraging diversity and acceptance.

“It’s interesting because if you talk to people at New College, sometimes  you get the sense that gay marriage  that’s just so homonormative and being  out is no longer a big deal,” Wallace said.

“But it is a big deal in some places. It  really, really matters and it really has an  impact.”

While Sam’s coming out has by no means met with unanimous praise, the  NFL has been more receptive to concerns  that the league fosters harassment and  bullying.

In a recent report commissioned  by the NFL, Miami Dolphins offensive  line coach Jim Turner and head athletic trainer Kevin O’Neill were found to have  played central roles in the harassment  of players and staff including the  repeated harassment of ex-Dolphins  tackle Jonathan Martin.  Martin left the team in the middle  of the 2013 season after enduring  months of verbal abuse at the hands of  other players and staff members.

After conducting an internal  investigation, the Miami Dolphins fired  both Turner and O’Neill. In a press  release, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen  Ross said that the harassment endured  by Martin is “against the core values of  our organization.”

Professor of Sociology Emily  Fairchild said that the potential for Sam and Thomas to begin careers in the NFL  is indicative that the league has begun to respond to broader political and cultural changes concerning diversity  and bullying.

“Most of the reactions that I have  seen have been positive and I think

that’s a statement about the political  climate there we are in where it seems  that the right thing to do is to support  Sam and the wrong thing to do would be  to say that this is a problem,” Fairchild  said.

The 2014 season will also mark the  debut of the first permanent woman  official in the NFL. Sarah Thomas, a referee with years of experience at the  collegiate level, is in the running to become the first permanent woman  official in the NFL. However, Thomas is not the fi st woman to officiate a pro  game.  During the 2012 referee strike,  Shannon Eastin became the first woman  to officiate games in the NFL. Eastin  has since been barred from serving as a permanent official by the NFL Referees  Association due to her participation in the World Series of Poker.

If Thomas wins the job, she may  begin officiating games as early as the fall  of 2014. While the inclusion of women  and LGBTQ players and officials signals  NFL inclusiveness a shift in the league’s traditionally conservative culture it also presents the NFL with an opportunity to win

over viewers who have traditionally not  tuned into NFL broadcasts.

Of the four major professional  sports, the NFL has the smallest share  of women watching its broadcasts. According to the NFL, 43 percent of  its viewership is composed of women;  even more enticing to front offices  and advertisers, about 55 percent  of American women watch football.

Making games more inclusive and  welcoming to all fans could prove  lucrative for the league.  However, neither Sam nor Thomas  have landed their jobs yet. While Thomas  is still in the running for her position,  Sam’s mediocre performance at the NFL  Combine has led many analysts to slate  him as a mid-round pick at best.

While the fates of Sam and  Thomas will not be known until May at  the earliest, it is clear that the NFL is  trying to embrace diversity and make  the gridiron a more welcoming place for players, officials and fans alike.

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