In 1910, the Boy Scouts of America's Handbook of Woodcraft, Scouting, and Life-Craft explained the true nature of a young man by claiming, "The boy from ten to fifteen, like the savage, is purely physical in his ideals." In 1907, a book entitled The Boy Problem illustrated that masculinity not only revolved around physical strength, but could even be undermined by excessive feminine influence:
From the standpoint of the needs of adolescent boys there is considerable cause for alarm because the lure of commercial success and the competition of women have produced a feminization and lowering of the masculine quality of the teaching profession. The danger is that our boys shall be taught, as Supt. Walter H. Small suggests, only "by young girls and weak men.
While early definitions of manhood rested upon "physical ideals" and not being like "young girls and weak men," they also involved the ability to attract women. In From Youth Into Manhood, published in 1909, athletics allow a teenage boy to "win the respect of his young women acquaintances" though his "prowess and strength." As for homosexuality, in addition to various forms of homophobia and anti-gay laws throughout the country, a 1955 educational film by the Unified School District and the Police Department of Inglewood, CA warned against the "dangers of homosexuality" and labeled it "a sickness of the mind."
Fast forward to 2014 and the NBA, NFL, and MLB earn billions of dollars using the same traditional ideals of masculinity found in literature written over one hundred years ago.
Michael Sam, however, has thrown a wrench into the marketing campaigns of these billion-dollar industries and shattered an archetypal notion of masculinity. Sam has shown the world, especially young men around the country looking for role models in sports, that masculinity doesn't revolve around having sex with women or being the opposite of feminine. While most football fans might not admit it or perhaps don't even realize it, Sam has removed a burden from the shoulders of every male in the country -- both gay and straight.
Proving one's manhood is not only an American problem; it's a global issue. According to the United Nations' Resource Guide for Peer Educators, the pressure for young males to prove their masculinity leads to violence and at times even suicide:
Being able to prove that he is a 'man' is the foremost pressure on a male adolescent. During adolescence and early youth, this pressure is particularly acute. It is the core of male peer pressure, which is now a recognized adolescent concern. It is often a matter of life and death for boys/ men and a failure to prove one's manhood may even drive an isolated young man to suicide. This 'masculinity' pressure can turn this otherwise beautiful period of a man's life into a nightmare.
Heterosexual men no longer have the pressure that comes with equating sports with traditional versions of masculinity. A gay man is now a part of the toughest, most physically demanding league in all of sports. Therefore, the quest to uphold traditional concepts of manhood is today simply a choice.
It's no longer a necessity since Michael Sam has revealed that one can simultaneously kiss his boyfriend and be drafted by the NFL. A clique of high school jocks somewhere in the country can't denigrate a classmate anymore for being "gay" since the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year might play on Sundays in the NFL. Furthermore, the burden to uphold traditional concepts of masculinity has led to negative consequences for society. According to Anne Gregory, author of Rethinking Homophobia in Sports (published by DePaul Law School), the quest to be masculine has led to bullying and peer pressure:
Men who rely on these masculine stereotypes often use them to assert and preserve their superiority over men who show stereotypically feminine stereotypes. Homophobia in sports is learned in various ways. For example, from joking in locker rooms boys learn that gays are disgusting and something to mock. It is also learned from coaches, that boys who are "weak or soft," and thus gay, are something to ridicule. Further, men who participate in "less masculine" sports, such as fencing and gymnastics, are often ridiculed as being gay. Finally, men who show no interest in sports are also seen as less masculine than men who follow sports. The ridicule of being considered feminine or gay likely stems from masculine males' being threatened by men who do not cherish the masculine traits that are held as superior in our society. Once again, masculine men are threatened by an alternative way of being a "man."
When a former All-American, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and St. Louis defensive end kisses his boyfriend on national television, it sends a message to every football coach in the country. Suddenly, the words "weak," "soft" and "gay" have a new, perhaps altered meaning. It also sends a message to every teenage boy who might want to become a cheerleader, dancer or gymnast.
As a heterosexual married man, I'm writing this article with the knowledge that many other heterosexual men might not initially accept my argument. Some might accuse Sam of only seeking attention or predict he won't even make the team. However, regardless of why he chose to kiss his boyfriend on national television or whether or not he'll make the team, Michael Sam has shown the world that the definition of masculinity is no longer found in early 20th century literature. Also, a gay NFL football player destroys the foundation of homophobia in that it proves to certain bigoted sports fans that gay men can be just as masculine as anyone in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The "lifestyle choice" that homophobes always viewed as unnatural will now be represented on cherished NFL Sundays, perhaps right after church and during the afternoon game.
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