04/09/2014 01:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Does Social Media Play a Role in an Athlete's Decision to Come Out of the Closet?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Mills Baker, Product Design Analyst at Mokriya

Speculatively: yes. Summary:

  • Athletes know thanks to many incidents that social media is dangerous if you have secrets.
  • Millennials are less willing than prior generations to alter, mask, or conceal any of their behavior, for reasons relating both to the values of the time and the nature of social media and technology.
  • For millennials, not using social media honestly is an unacceptable cost; it is the locus of culture, and they expect to be able to express themselves online more-or-less freely.

No contemporary athlete is unfamiliar with the litany of accidental social media disclosures by celebrities in recent years. In the earliest stages of a world-class athlete's development, they're aware that with success comes fame, with fame scrutiny, and with omnipresent fan scrutiny and digital technology a very low likelihood of keeping secrets.

Everyone now knows that you cannot delete tweets quickly enough!

For a player entering the NFL Draft in particular, so many social media incidents in recent years must bring a sense that there is a choice: either

  1. do not participate in social media (or not traceably, defeating much of the purpose for ordinary users)
  2. participate mindful of the scrutiny of millions of eyes at all time, either with or without a PR handler

Lots of players choose the second option, and we watch as what they consider acceptable meshes or clashes with the opinions of fans, media, the culture at large. Some players --like Drew Brees-- become deeply bland and anodyne social media personalities:

Fig. 1: I love Brees, but he's too old to insist on authenticity in social media; it's just product placement, PR, posi-vibes, and the occasional real utterance.

Others remain "true to themselves" and simply happen to accord with the judgments of the country most of the time, or they stay away from controversial subjects / photographs.

Fig. 2: Moore is no spring chicken, but he's also less scrutinized than Brees. Generally on Twitter, QBs are the least fun and defensive backs are the most fun.

For Michael Sam, the prospect of keeping so much of himself secret or buried was probably too much to accept; he wanted to "tell his story," and I believe part of that is telling his story daily, casually narrating his life in social media as many of us do: with photos, tweets, references to our lives and passions and interests, etc. There's a millennial element to insisting on living in public, but it's also just an effect of the social media age.

As it happens, I think this is the one unreservedly positive cultural effect of social media, and I assume this is how Zuckerberg et alia recruit idealists to work on social media products. Thanks to such networks, two things happen:

  1. It becomes harder to conceal secrets, to hide ourselves and our behaviors and choices.
  2. It's harder to ignore the true, unconcealed nature of others, their humanity, the validity of their behaviors and choices.

Together, these bring about necessary revisions in our moral standards and cultural judgments; while it is too slow for persons affected by discrimination and abuse, this process is unbelievably rapid by historical standards.

In particular, the transformation of American attitudes about homosexuality --the decreasing acceptability of using words like "gay" pejoratively, the commonplace presence of gay characters on TV, etc.-- has occurred at breakneck speed, due both to activist political efforts and phenomena like George Takei's presence in everyone's Facebook news feeds for the past few years. Takei has 6M "Likes" on Facebook and over 1M followers on Twitter, lots of them heartland folks whose exposure to a "safe" and funny gay person changed how they thought; it's harder to dehumanize those who appear alongside your family in your feed, making amusing observations, and getting 100K likes from "regular people."

Being brought into frequent contact with cultural output of George Takei and others probably did more to shift American attitudes than many would believe. That's a foundational idea behind Buzzfeed's LGBTQ coverage, and that they've been so successful suggests a lot about the centrality and importance of social media in culture.

Given all that: there's a great cost to segregating themselves, as it were, from this culture zone, the home of the zeitgeist, the nexus of so much out our activity, reaction, values, and being. We may finally be at a point, thanks in part to social media, where that cost exceeds the costs of coming out of the closet, even for an NFL athlete.

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