Draft Day

Five Lessons The NFL Should Take From The World’s Most Powerful Military

NFL hopeful Michael Sam got a standing ovation at a Missouri basketball game after announcing publicly that he’s gay, a reflection of the high levels of support he’s received — and likely will continue to receive — from young people since coming out. Jason Collins’ debut as a NBA player in Brooklyn was largely a non-issue.

But as NFL draft begins today, executives and coaches, representing an older and more homophobic demographic, have expressed all kinds of angst about what a gay team member might do to the fragile-like-an-egg climate that is apparently an NFL locker room. Some say that his draft stock has declined to the point where he may not be drafted all. (Although his poor performance at the NFL combine did not help matters either.)

Haven’t we seen this movie before? Oh yeah, the decades-long effort by sometimes highly polite (and sometimes not) U.S. military officials and other champions of barring open gays from donning a uniform. Since the gladiator NFL is the pro sport that’s most like the military — and since Sam likely selected in the NFL Draft May 8-10 — here are five lessons the league can take from the successful integration of openly gay troops into the world’s most powerful military.

1. People hollering about the showers are the ones who are fixated on gays, not professionals trying to do their job.

Yes, the homosocial climate of male locker rooms is greased, in part, by male bonding. But it’s 2014, and male bonding doesn’t require being straight. Gay people have always been in locker rooms, and straight people have been showering with them since time immemorial. This is not Wile E. Coyote where you only fall once you look down and realize what’s up.

2.  Anyone who says they’re not anti-gay but just “concerned” about distractions and a media circus is hiding their own homophobia.

We actually have research on this. People who are uncomfortable around gays and homosexuality have routinely claimed that something dreadful will result if gays take their place at the table. But nothing dreadful ever happens, unless you count gay equality as dreadful.

3. Any league that welcomes Ray Lewis and Michael Vick should welcome Michael Sam.

Lewis, you see, was a Ravens linebacker who was indicted for murder and pled guilty to obstruction of justice—and kept playing. Vick went to jail for running a brutal dog fighting ring, and then was signed by the Eagles. Whatever you think of these horrible episodes, the NFL was perfectly content to deal with the media circus they caused. Drawing the line at an openly gay player, who by all measures is above reproach, unlike many college and pro players, would be suspicious indeed.

4. Strong Leadership is key.

This is a tricky because leaders, by virtue of their age, tend to be more homophobic than the rank and file; yet the tone for inclusivity and respect is set at the top. On the one hand, what we know about concerns being overblown suggests there is little to worry about in the first place; yet a large body of research on institutional change shows that it’s critical for leaders to throw their support behind a change like this. Unlike the military, the NFL is not changing a policy, just witnessing a cultural transformation. Still, strong leadership support will minimize any bumps in the road.

5. It gets better.

Research I conducted with colleagues after DADT was lifted in 2011 shows that not only does group cohesion not suffer from having openly gay members, but organizations actually get better as a result of increased honesty, understanding, respect and acceptance among group members. This point should help assuage the fears of anyone who genuinely worries that openly gay athletes could damage the comraderie of a team.

Nathaniel Frank, a regular contributor to Slate, is writing a book titled The Bias Inside Us. See more of his work at NathanielFrank.com