locker room

In February 2014, a lobbyist tried to introduce a bill to the House that would ban gay players from the NFL. Lobbyist Jack Burkman deemed it a “horrifying prospect” for moms to think about their sons showering with gay men. Just last weekend, Michael Sam performed exceptionally well during his NFL debut. The St. Louis Rams locker room is most likely the same as it was before the first openly gay NFL player joined their roster—full of exhausted, smelly, sore NFL players taking showers.

Individual Behavior Reflects Character, not Sexual Orientation

Individual behavior in the locker room is driven by one’s character, not sexual orientation. I remember the various behaviors of my college basketball teammates in our locker room. Some of my teammates were goofballs making jokes. Some of my teammates would share every event of their day. Some of my teammates were more quiet or discrete. Often our conversations related to the defining event of the day – our intense workout session, somebody’s great (or poor) performance, procrastinating on a deadline, etc. I never felt uncomfortable beyond my general discomfort with group showers. And I never felt threatened by the presence of any of my teammates, straight or lesbian. If anything, one of my teammates became a bit image obsessed. She was straight. And I remember feeling more judged by her than anyone else on the team. A person’s sexual orientation does not dictate a particular type of behavior. Personality does.

Behavior in Locker Rooms may Reflect Team Culture

Not all locker rooms are LGBT friendly. Some collegiate and professional athletes routinely endure slurs or gay jokes. Others may experience blatant threats. The language or treatment may be imbedded in the team culture. The slurs may be used to fulfill an image of toughness, or to intimidate or strengthen younger players. A team culture that tolerates hostility towards any group will struggle if they have a diverse roster. Morale and performance suffers under these conditions. You will lose high quality players who either overtly or silently objects to the culture. Imagine being a gay athlete on the Miami Dolphins roster in past years. We had glimpses of their way of being with one another in the NFL-commissioned report on the locker room situation. The report found the Miami Dolphins’ workplace home to a range of homophobia, bullying, racism, and general culture of intolerance. Player Richie Incognito and other linemen had a pattern of language, texts, and behavior that would be difficult to endure. I doubt Michael Sam would play for that organization. I doubt many enjoyed playing in that culture. I enjoyed playing for an organization that valued respect of others. I don’t think anything else would have worked with our team comprised of players from all over the country with differing religions, sexual orientations, ethnicities, and races.

People may argue that, in the Dolphins case, it was one individual’s behavior. There was a “bad” apple on the team, not imbedded to the overall culture. We all have our own set of beliefs and values that are close to heart. Maybe some tie to beliefs about sexual orientation. Personal values, in general, are very difficult to shift. In resolving conflicts, we rarely focus on the parties’ values but rather on interests and information. The interest for a sports team is to maximize performance and win.

Changing Culture – for Victory or Personal Values

At the end of the day, all sports teams share a common interest—maximize performance and victories. Coaches or organizations that are serious about maximizing performance need to create a more inclusive atmosphere of tolerance. Athletes will adjust and behave according to clearly defined boundaries of respect and tolerance. Their individual values may not shift, but dedicated athletes will be willing to adhere to respectful rules for the greater interest of improved performance and victory. The culture of any locker room can shift to be more productive and positive.

The St. Louis Rams clearly have a culture of respect. I assume this culture is imbedded in their locker room as well. And the first openly gay NFL player joined their culture. He’s an asset to their program with his skills. Other teams could take note and shift their culture into one of respect. Toughness need not be promoted through the use of gay slurs or other intolerant behavior or language. Toughness and success exists in respectful environments as well. Just ask Michael Sam or others

Author: Maggie Langlas Ward, JD