What is it about locker rooms?

107077Last week there was Frank Bruni’s very funny column “Panic in the Locker Room!” about the reaction to Michael Sam’s coming out. An excerpt:

Sports Illustrated quoted an unnamed assistant coach who also brought up the fabled sanctum of Tinactin and testosterone. “There’s nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room,” he said. “If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it?”

To his question, a few of my own: When did the locker room become such a delicate ecosystem? Is it inhabited by athletes or orchids? And how is it that gladiators who don’t flinch when a 300-pound mountain of flesh in shoulder pads comes roaring toward them start to quiver at the thought of a homosexual under a nearby nozzle? They may be physical giants, but at least a few of them are psychological pipsqueaks.

And they’re surprisingly blunt and Paleolithic. When NFL Network’s Andrea Kremer recently brought up the possibility of an openly gay player with Jonathan Vilma, a New Orleans Saints linebacker, he said: “Imagine if he’s the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me.”

“How am I supposed to respond?” Vilma added.

Well, a squeal would be unmanly, Mace might not be enough and N.F.L. players tend to use their firearms away from the stadium, so I’d advise him to do what countless females of our species have done with leering males through history. Step away. Move on. Dare I say woman up?

Then yesterday the N.F.L’s commission report came out. The opening paragraphs in the Times:

On the Miami Dolphins’ practice field, players simulated sexual acts as they taunted a teammate about his sister. In the team’s hallways and meeting rooms, racist epithets and homophobic language flowed. One coach gave an offensive lineman an inflatable male doll as part of his Christmas stocking stuffer. Many of the Dolphins knew, but did not say or do anything.

The players apparently considered this behavior part of the job. In the wake of it, a young player, Jonathan Martin, quit the team and debated giving up on his career, feeling such psychological duress that he said he twice considered committing suicide.

I’m no expert on male locker rooms, as you might imagine, but the picture I get is what might be called testosterone toughness training. In the military, where you have to kill people, not just knock them down, they call the science of creating killers “killology.” In those football locker rooms they seem to be practicing a sort of killology-lite, where perceived testosterone levels determine the hierarchy; where the taunting and harassing determine who’s on top.

Bruni treated it lightly, but to me it’s frightening. If I were at the top of the hierarchy, instead of the bottom, I might feel differently, but I doubt it.


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