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.