Why Michael Sam’s future may be tougher than we think
University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam stands to make history as the first openly gay athlete in the National Football League. The league, sports media, and armchair commentators are now scrambling to predict how the All American’s disclosure of his sexual orientation may affect his future team members.
Though the public response to Sam’s announcement has been overwhelmingly positive, social psychology and organizational behavior research suggest he may have a struggle ahead. His success or failure in the NFL will largely depend on the leadership of his prospective team.
Sam’s Mizzou family supported him as an openly gay player, and he had an odds-defying season. But he began his career with the Tigers as a closeted gay man. That distinction is key. Anti-gay attitudes decrease when individuals have close gay friends, University of California, Davis psychologist Gregory Herek has found. Compared to other stigmatized groups, gay men and women have the advantage of concealing their stigmatized identity in new relationships — coming out once they’ve established trust. Because Sam’s sexual orientation will be known before he ever signs to a team, this opportunity to “win hearts, then change minds” may be lost.
Second, research on “implicit cognition” — the study of rapid and automatic psychological processes — has shown that most of us hold biases we aren’t aware of, and which can often contradict attitudes we express. Even when we hold strong values about fairness, studies have shown, these implicit biases reduce our friendliness to minority group members, decrease our ratings of minority service employees, and even affect our willingness to invite minority candidates for job interviews.
While we may want to treat others equally, these subconscious biases may still win out in the moment, because they influence the more spontaneous, visceral and emotional aspects of our decisions. Biases are stubborn things, even when we’re motivated to overcome them. Unfortunately, the NFL appears to have plenty of players unwilling to try — as demonstrated by Chris Culliver’s infamous anti-gay rant following last year’s Super Bowl.
To complicate matters, our environment can help to confirm or contradict our implicit attitudes, leading us to either act on them or work to override them. In my own research with colleagues Scott Reynolds and Katherine Decelles, we found that subtle cues — like brief statements by chief executive officers — combined with participants’ implicit beliefs to produce unethical behavior.
In a business simulation we conducted, we found that when people held implicitly positive attitudes about business and the message from the CEO stated, “We do what it takes to get ahead,” they were 33 times more likely to falsify an insurance claim than those who didn’t hold such a positive belief, or those whose CEO said, “We value doing the right thing.”
Our participants’ more mindful beliefs about business ethics had no effect on their behavior, suggesting they were generally unaware how their instinctive, automatic beliefs influence their behavior. If we’re to believe allegations that Minnesota Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer made frequent homophobic comments, much of what NFL players hear on a daily basis would reinforce the implicit biases they already hold.
But despite the rhetoric about a culture of hyper-masculinity, machismo in the locker room, or squeamishness about showers, we have proof that good leadership and political will can accomplish a lot. Just five years ago, I heard frequent arguments about the incompatibility of military culture and openly gay service while working as an ethics professor at West Point during the repeal of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” The repeal later rolled out without a hitch, in large part because Army leadership emphasized their core values of respect and integrity while enforcing a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination.
The military reminded its members that mistreating gay colleagues would oppose what they stood for. To the best of my knowledge, military members continue to shower.
The NFL and the owners and coaches of Sam’s prospective team have an opportunity for meaningful change through strong and consistent leadership. The NFL already has an anti-discrimination policy regarding sexual orientation. Now it must prove that it is more than just window dressing or an attempt to appease the players’ union.
At the team level, owners and coaches must be willing to give teeth to their policies. It’s one thing to penalize a lesser member for violating a team’s values, but disciplining a star player to protect a third-round draft pick puts potential wins and millions of dollars at stake. The Miami Dolphins’ decision to ignore (and possibly cover up) offensive lineman Richie Incognito’s repeated bullying of Jonathan Martin shows that such depth of integrity may be absent in many teams.
We cannot predict whether Sam’s presence in the NFL will have a positive impact on his team. If it doesn’t, it may be due largely to self-fulfilling beliefs on the part of the team’s coaching staff and ownership. The NFL should regard this as a missed opportunity to exercise strong leadership — rather than hiding behind the dysfunctions of its culture.
PHOTO (TOP): Missouri Tigers defensive lineman Michael Sam (52) reacts after a play during the second half against the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the 2014 Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, January 3, 2014. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
PHOTO (INSERT): NBA basketball player Jason Collins speaks after being presented with the Courage Award, at the annual Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network Respect Awards gala in New York, May 20, 2013. REUTERS/Adam Hunger